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In the Footsteps of Giants

“To actually see how beautiful and big the species is in life, to hear the sounds of its giant wings thrumming as it flew past my head, was just incredible.” Clay Bolt

If you’re reading this (and I’m pretty sure you are), then the chances are that you’ve heard of a bloke by the name of Alfred Russel Wallace. Unfortunately, however, many people haven’t, so you’ll forgive me if I take a minute to explain.

The year is 1858 and a small group of white-haired, balding British scientists gathered for possibly the most important ever meeting in the history of ecology. A young upstart biologist by the name of Alfred Russel Wallace has recently contacted the eminent academic Charles Darwin with a letter from the other side of the world. Having travelled extensively within across Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea, he has collected thousands of insect specimen, and in doing so had a brainwave.

What has occurred to him is, as it so happens, very much alike to that which Darwin himself had recognised many years previously over the course of his brief travels through the Galapagos Archipelago. Namely, that all species currently on this Earth are descended from a selection of older species that have slowly morphed and changed over generations as a result of environmental pressures to become the lifeforms that we see today.

The problem was, although Darwin had himself already formulated this revolutionary idea, he had held back from publishing as a result of the perceived that of kickback from the academic community that he predicted it would cause. Now, presented with findings that so perfectly mirrored his own, he was struck with a crisis of conscience. Should he publish now, and gain the credit and fame that he hoped would follow? Or should he grant the younger Wallace precedence in this field, and hold back from contributing his own evidence until later? Wisely, he chose to opt for a compromise, calling for a meeting of the prestigious Linnaen society to here both of their papers at a joint reading on 1st July.

And so here we are. Of course, the two biologists were instantly transported into the heart of one the greatest controversies of their time- lasting well after both of them had passed away.

So that’s Wallace. Now to the bee.

Megachile pluto, known to less pretentious people as Wallace’s Giant Bee just so happens to be one of those many, many species that our favourite biologist discovered whilst trekking through the forests of the Malay Archipelago. It’s also the largest bee species on Earth. To give you an idea, that’s up to five times the size of your common-and-garden European Honeybee- about the size of a thumb.

Okay, perhaps it’s no elephant. But still… something of that size really oughtn’t be that elusive. As it turns out, this ‘king of bees’ had, until recently, only been seen a grand total of twice. Wallace in the late 19th century was one. The second then was a researcher by the name of Adam Messer who recorded seeing it in 1981.

Thus our story begins.

In 2015, an American nature photographer and bee enthusiast Clay Bolt happened to be visiting an entomologist by the name of Eli Wyman at the American Museum of Natural History. The express purpose of the visit was to further Clay’s project of documenting all North America’s many native bee species- but it would come to so much more than that.

Before parting ways, and at the end of a long afternoon of hard work, Eli came out with a question: “Want to see a specimen of Megachile pluto?” To most people it would be complete and utter gibberish. Not so to Clay.

As it turns out, both of these insect-lovers had for years held a fantasy of rediscovering this lost giant in the wild. An increasingly spirited discussion of possibilities began, and the two were thereafter united in their quest. When Global Wildlife Conservation launched their “Search for Lost Species” program, the pair applied it for a position therein, and it was accepted- joining others such as the Fernandina Giant Tortoise and Attenborough’s Long-Beaked Echindna in their top 25 most wanted list.

Fast forward a few years to October 2018, and Eli is contacted out of the blue by the writer Glen Chilton regarding a trip he and his colleague Simon Robson had planned to search for the giant bee. Talking about a dream come true!

In January of this year (2019) this band of four met in Jakarta, travelling onward to the remote region of the North Moluccas. The timing, of course, was no coincidence. This was the same season during which both Wallace and Adam Messer had recorded sighting the species, and anyone who pays attention to these things surely knows how variable insect movements and cycles are with the seasons. The team had done their research, and were targeting the mounds of tree-dwelling termites for the tell-tale burrows the females of the species dug in order to lay their eggs.

Sadly, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Despite the expert guidance of two local conservationists- Iswan and Eka- our team of intrepid insect-hunters suffered brutally from the combined effects of heat, humidity and disease that haunt those who venture thus into the tropics. Glen was forced to bail, returning home to Australia early after being hit hard by illness. The remainder of the team battled on, staring at termite nests for twenty minutes at a time in the increasingly desperate hope of striking gold with a discovery- but to not avail.

They trekked across two islands, scouring several dozen termite mounds without finding the slightest trace of a giant bee- mocked occasionally from the treetops by the presence of other closely related Megachile bees.

Drained and defeated, the diminished team finally conceded their failure and set off to return back after five full days of intensive searching. Tired and hungry, walking down an old road flanked by lowland forest on one side and fruit trees the other, Iswan grudgingly pointed out a low termite mound perched in a rotting tree just two metres from the ground. Approaching it wearily, they were shocked to see a perfectly round bee-sized hole in its side. Of course, that didn’t mean it was a bee’s hole, but it was a start. Bracing the tree from collapse, Iswan climbed up to inspect… something stirred inside, and he leapt hastily down. You can’t be too careful in an Indonesian forest!

A headtorch was retrieved and the moment of truth arrived- it was a success! Couched inside its burrow lined with a sticky resin lay a sole female bee- one tiny but significant part of Wallace’s legacy to the present day.

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