The moist air in the northern Maluku Islands of Indonesia, also called spice islands, is loaded with nutmeg and cloves. These lowland moist tropical forests have been the backdrop to the recent rediscovery of a remarkable animal: Wallace's giant bee, known locally as raja ofu, meaning "king of bees", and with good reason. The wings are extended, the larger specimens (which are actually queens) can be the size of an extra large chicken egg, and they have a jaw like a forceps.
Wallace's giant bee – the largest in the world – was first documented by science in 1858 by the English entomologist Alfred Russel Wallace, well known for his independent interpretation of the theory of evolution by natural selection alongside Charles Darwin. Although the insect later bears his name, Wallace did not even identify it as a bee at the time. In a story of his travels, The Malay Archipelagohe described it as "a big black insect like a wasp with a huge jawbone like a Colorado beetle." He handed over some 100,000 samples of insects, birds and animals – including this unique female specimen – to various British research institutes. In 1861, the entomologist of the British Museum, Fredereck Smith, confirmed not only that Megachile plutoas he nicknamed it, was a bee, but it is also the largest of the 20,000 known species in the world.. But it's been a long time since we've been seen in the wild.
Wallace's description aroused the curiosity of Clay Bolt, a natural history and conservation photographer specializing in the documentation of bees from North America. "I wanted to go [to the Malukus] from the perspective of seeing these species that were integral to the theory of evolution, "he says. With his friend entomologist Eli Wyman, head of an insect lab at Princeton University, he traveled to Indonesia in January 2019 as part of the program. In Search of Lost Species "of Global Wildlife Conservation, which seeks fears of creatures to be lost has been glimpsed for a long time.
Photographer Clay Bolt captures the first known images of a living Wallace giant bee. Simon Robinson
The last record of a living giant bee dates from 1981, from the American biologist Adam Messer. We do not know why it's been so long that the bee has not been seen for the last time. The northern Malukus are hard to reach and the bee, unlike many well-known social varieties, is more lonely. They can share a nest between them, one with a single point of entry, such as an apartment complex, but females nest alone while their potential partners must wait outside. . She collects pollen to form a nutritious ball for her offspring and then seals inside to protect her only egg.
Mr. pluto is so rare that less than a year ago, a specimen of sold for more than $ 9,000 On ebay. Bolt and Wyman used Messer's stories on his observation to refine their research. The fact that 80% of the northern Maluku forests are still intact helps. (Elsewhere in Indonesia, palm oil plantations for the production of biofuels have cleared millions and millions of acres of forest, destroying wildlife habitat and contributing to climate change.)
Iswan, guide and advocate of the Indonesian environment, examines an arboreal mound containing the nest of a giant Wallace bee. © Clay Bolt
Wallace's giant bees nest in termite mounds growing on trees, and her formidable jaws are used to scrape tree resin, which she uses to cover her nest, waterproof it against the rainforest climate, and protect it from damage. termites. For a week, Bolt and Wyman scanned about thirty termites. At the very moment when they were beginning to lose hope, Iswan, an Indonesian guide and ecologist, spotted an extremely low mountain, about eight feet above the ground. Iswan later said that, tired and hungry, he almost passed near the mound without mentioning it. But, climbing an embankment, he spotted a perfectly round hole, where he saw something move. Bolt followed with his headlamp and lit up the first bee of this kind to have been seen for nearly 40 years.
In order to photograph her, they tickled her gently with a blade of grass. She came out of her nest to go to a box where they could photograph her while she was flying. "The sounds of the wings were absolutely incredible. It was a slow and deep move, "says Bolt. "I will never forget it." These photographs are the first step towards a larger goal: to start working more closely with locals to search for more nests and promote conservation in the area. "Just knowing that the giant wings of this bee cross this ancient Indonesian forest helps me feel that, in a world where many losses reign, hope and miracle still exist."