For security reasons I can't tell you exactly where Clay Bolt rediscovered Wallace's giant bee. But I can tell you this. With a two and a half inch wing pin, the goliath is four times larger than a European honey bee. Much in contrast to its honey-making cousin, it has huge jaws, more like those of the famous stag bell. And it does not live in the nest with thousands of family members, but virtually alone in the cave of thermite hay, a tubular home it stretches with waterproof resin.
Last month, Bolt and his colleagues on a miserable beating through the rain on an Indonesian island, not to be named, are searching for termite hay in trees, the last place a scientist discovered the superlative species of bee nearly 40 years ago. Sometimes they had to sit under a tree with a binoculars for 20 minutes and look at the distinctive movements that would reveal a bee in a high way up. For heights closer to the ground, they would scramble up for a closer look.
After six days searching maybe 40 mounds on two different island movements. "Our guide shimmed up the tree and looked in with his mobile phone flashlight and noticed something moving," says Bolt. "He ran down because he was scared of snakes."
Heart aflutter, Bolt went up and came face to face with the world's largest bee, what the locals call "king of bees". (Despite the name, it is the women who are the giants who measure almost twice as long as the men, who also lack the impressive mandibles.) Whatever aggressive or distressed, the woman was hard at work using her curious mouth to rework the resin who controls her chamber. Bolt placed a test tube over the entrance and delicately bent the bee out with gentle flicks of the grass leaves and caught a creature that no researcher has lived for four decades.
This is a scientific saga that began in early days with modern biology, with a character almost as curious as the giant bee that would take its name: Alfred Russel Wallace. A tall, skin reserved young explorer, he spent the 1850s traipsing through tropical forests gathering samples to be sold back in England. One of them was a sample that a local brought to him, "a large black wasp-like insect with huge jaws like a wheelbarrow."
It was during these travels that Wallace-wracked with a kind of tropical disease, perhaps malaria fever – dreamed the idea of evolution by natural selection while Charles Darwin independently muttered his famous theory. Unfortunately for Wallace's heritage he wrote down the idea and sent it to Darwin, who then hastened to publish on the Origin of Species . (To be fair, Darwin's friends presented both biologists' findings to the scientific community first.)
Bolt had read Wallace's journals and knew the legend of the great bee well. So when the entomologist Eli Wyman showed him around in the Collections of the American Museum of Natural History in 2015 and offered to come out for a test, Bolt did not hesitate. "I was immediately enchanted by it," he says. "From that moment on, we really began to close a plan to see if we could be the ones who found it and rediscovered it because it is just so rare and beautiful."
It would make them extreme rarity: a scientific team to look at the giant bee alive. After Wallace, the other was studying the species on the field an entomologist named Adam Messer. In 1981, he observed the bizarre resin collection excursions from Wallace's giant bee, which, in addition to its large mandibles, used part of its mouth, called a lab room to harvest things from a tree.
"Facing upward" writes Messer, "A female loosened resin with the mandibles and then scraped it up using the elongated labrum as a bulldozer blade. The ball of resin formed was held in place between the tree and the lab while it was gradually enlarged. "The woman would then take it back to her nest along with wood fibers to waterproof the tunnel walls.
The resin can also help explain why Wallace's giant bee evolved to be so giant. In addition to damping the tunnels, the sticky resin can help keep the thermites out. "She's strong enough to actually flow through without getting stuck," says Bolt, "while the small termites would definitely get stuck if they tried to penetrate."
However, the evolutionary history of this mystical nature is far from resolved as it is the question of the sociality of bees. Fairs found several women living in a termite nest, but the species has nowhere near the sophisticated community of a honey bee. That's fine, really: The majority of bee species are lonely, so honey bees are out here.
Out of concern for the condition of the species population, Bolt left his test in nature. Poachers would not be so sensitive why he keeps the bee's place a secret. "I felt incredible responsibility because by saying that this creature exists exists, it means people can try to look for it," says Bolt. "That's why I immediately started talking to the authorities and locals in Indonesia to find a way to help protect it."
The news of the rediscovery comes only one week after an alarming report cataloged large falls in insect populations. The simultaneous terrible and calming truth is that while insects do not completely disappear from the Earth's surface, some suffer more than others. Pollinating species are affected by pesticides, but other species will inevitably adapt to a warmer and generally less hospitable planet.
"In a time of biodiversity falling, including for insects, this rediscovery gives us hope that not everything is lost and that we have managed to protect not only a fantastic bee, but more importantly the unique habitat that is its and probably many other rare species "at home", says Cornell University entomologist Corrie Moreau, who was not involved in this new work. 19659003] The challenge is that the protection of species such as Wallace's giant bee requires understanding of them. means sending people like Bolt to involuntary places for days, and that means using what we have learned to inform about how we protect vulnerable species, including identifying vulnerable habitats and protecting them at all costs.
This is particularly urgent for large species such as Wallace's giant bee, because large species are more vulnerable, the bigger you are, the fewer of your species can fit into an ecosystem. "It's like lemurs," Brian Fisher says. , curator for ento mology at the California Academy of Sciences, who was not involved in this work. "You can predict exactly the next eradication of lemurs based on body size. It's the same for insects."
Complications are that fewer than half of insect species have been discovered. "Again and again, in the news, Elon Musk puts people on Mars, SpaceX. But there is no exploration on Earth," Fisher says. "No one is launching an EarthX that we don't have time to do if we actually want to document who we are sharing this planet with."
Meanwhile, Wallace's giant bee stands as both a survival and scientific effort. "Now it's not time to bend your hands in despair," says Bolt. "Now is the time to get to work and try to do what we can to protect bees."
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