By Clay Bolt with Nicolas Vereecken and Eli Wyman
In 1859, on his last day exploring the tropical Indonesian island of Bacan, English entomologist Alfred Russell Wallace discovered a very strange looking insect. Wallace, who would one day be recognized for famously co-discovering the concept of evolution through natural selection alongside Charles Darwin wasn’t sure what to make of the invertebrate, which he described as “a large black wasp-like insect, with immense jaws like a stag-beetle.” So bizarre was the creature that it wasn’t until after the specimen was sent to entomologist Frederick Smith of the British Museum that it was determined that the insect was in fact a massive bee. And while Wallace only gives the species a one-line mention in his journal, Smith’s 1860 commentary offers a grander welcome to the new discovery by saying, “This species is the giant of the genus to which it belongs, and is the grandest addition which Wallace has made to our knowledge of the family Apidae.” Smith named the bee Megachile pluto, a species commonly known as Wallace’s Giant Bee, and with a wingspan of nearly 2.5” inches it easily took the crown as the largest known bee on earth. Surprisingly, for a species so conspicuous, another 122 years (1981) would pass before a westerner conducting forestry work—American Adam Messer—would accidentally rediscover it in the wild.
My own sighting of Wallace’s Giant Bee came just as unexpectedly 156 years later, not in a remote Indonesian rainforest, but in the concrete jungles of New York City. In 2015, while on a video shoot in Manhattan a friend mentioned that I should visit the American Museum of Natural History and connect with bee expert Eli Wyman. A year earlier I had begun documenting North American native bees for a photographic project and was really keen to see specimens of the species that I planned to photograph in the field. After spending some time exploring the collection Eli asked with a sly smile if I’d like to see the museum’s single specimen of Megachile pluto. Record scratch…say what? I didn’t have to be asked twice and miraculously within seconds my face was inches away from the Holy Grail of bees.
Bee expert Eli Wyman at the American Museum of Natural History with a specimen of Wallace’s Giant Bee © Clay Bolt / claybolt.com.
After seeing this beast with my own eyes, Wallace’s somewhat befuddled explanation suddenly made a whole lot more sense. If I had been standing in his well-worn shoes, I’m not sure that I would have had any degree of certainty regarding its true identity either. Its appearance is at once a beetle and a bee: a flying bulldog of an insect that must be terribly impressive while still alive. As I traveled home and the lights of New York faded in my mind, my memory of seeing this remarkable creature only grew in its intensity. I was left with so many questions: How could a creature this fantastic go mostly unnoticed in the wild for the past 150 years? And, did its disappearance signify that it had quietly gone extinct?
After its chance rediscovery in 1981, Messer learned that the bee makes its own nest within pre-existing nests of a particular species of tree-dwelling termite. He also proposed that its distribution was limited to three Indonesian islands in the North Moluccas. With clear-cutting for palm oil plantations wiping out forests across Indonesia, this bee, which depends upon trees for their resin and by way of its termite host, would undoubtedly suffer. As a result, Megachile pluto was assessed as Vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and while this assessment doesn’t give the bee any real degree of legal protection, it does place it on the radar of conservationists. Unfortunately, rarity can also have an inverse effect when it comes to a potential value of a species as a “collectible,” whether it concerns big game or a pinned insect. Rarity sells. Rarity makes the headlines. Rarity brings in the conservation dollars. Rarity attracts the unscrupulous collector who hopes to own a piece of something that no one else can enjoy. Rarity commodifies life.
This past week, the mystery of Wallace’s Giant Bee unfolded a little bit further when it once again appeared in the most unlikely of places: the online bidding site eBay. It appears that an insect seller happened upon one while looking for other species within its native range. At the completion of the auction, the very rare specimen sold for just over $9,000 US. At one point during the bidding process, the price rose as high as $39,000 US until a lower bidder dropped out and the high-bidder—a private collector and eventual winner—dropped their own bid down to $9,000. In a situation such as this, it is easy to blame the collector and seller, but it seems that both parties were within their legal rights.
The sale of this specimen will undoubtedly mark a new chapter in bee conservation, and will likely present new challenges. Many entomologists and bee conservationists have concerns about the emergence of a niche market for M. pluto, a vulnerable, IUCN red-listed wild bee species with an extremely narrow distribution range and high ecological specialization urgently requiring conservation actions. The Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit-sharing forbids museums to buy such specimens, even if they were to be secured for scientific study and public awareness raising campaigns at a given natural history museum. The online sale of Wallace’s Giant Bee was also presumably considered “legal” since selling specimens is only forbidden for species listed by the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), an international agreement between governments aiming to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.
Without any kind of legal protection, both for the species and its habitat, will this amazing product of evolution soon become the most sought after darling of the insect collecting community? In a part of the world where it can be challenging to make ends meet, a financial opportunity of this magnitude may be impossible for some to ignore.
This past week many mourned the death of the last male white rhino in existence. Even under the constant care of armed guards who protected him from poachers seeking rhino horn for snake-oil medicine, its eventual end came from natural causes. With only two remaining females the White Rhino’s future is bleak. However, this isn’t an isolated incident. Since my youngest son was born the world’s seven sub-species of rhino have dwindled to only three. I fear that extinction has become just another extreme news event that is now so commonplace that it can easily be ignored.
If we can’t save a rhino what chance does an insect have? That is a question that I don’t have the answer to. What I fear is that this moment—this seemingly innocuous auctioning of a single specimen—has the potential to become a pivot point toward extinction for yet another extraordinary creature. Laws for protecting a species are important, and I would personally like to see Wallace’s Giant Bee receive protection through CITES, but ultimately, we all have to decide what kind of world we want to live in. It is up to us to choose whether it will be one in which we can experience nature firsthand or solely through stories of a mythological time in which Carolina Parakeets barreled through snowstorms, White Rhinos lumbered across the savannah, and a bee bigger than all the rest still filled the air with the thrum of its mighty wings.
Photograph of a specimen of Wallace’s Giant Bee © NJ Vereecken