© Clay Bolt

The world’s largest bee vanished decades ago. Now, scientists have spotted it again

In 1981, the world’s biggest bee went missing—again. Wallace’s giant bee (above, right), which lives in the rainforests of Indonesia, is four times larger than a typical honey bee, with giant jaws and a wingspan of 6 centimeters—nearly as long as the short side of a dollar bill. (Those are the females; males are roughly half that size.) Now, the bee, which has been presumed extinct more than once, has been found again in the wild, a conservation group announced today.

As part of a project to rediscover lost species around the globe, four entomologists and photographers scoured the North Moluccas in the Indonesian islands for Wallace’s giant bee (Megachile pluto). After 5 days of searching, they located a single female inside a termite’s nest high in the trees—the bees build their own nests inside such structures, defending them with tree sap that they collect with their strong jaws.

The bee was first discovered in 1858 by naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace, who developed the theory of evolution by natural selection at the same time as Charles Darwin. At the time, Wallace noted the bee's large jaws, which looked like those of a stag beetle. But Wallace was the last person on record to see one until an entomologist with the University of Georgia in Athens found several in 1981. The status of the species has been unknown ever since.

One threat to the bees is insect collectors, who may be targeting the species, according to a statement from Robin Moore of Global Wildlife Conservation, a nonprofit in Austin that sponsored the search. The larger concern is loss of habitat, as Indonesia’s forests are being cut down for agriculture. The researchers want to create a conservation plan for the species—and Global Wildlife Conservation hopes the publicity of the record-setting bee will help raise awareness for its protection.