The world's largest species of bee – not seen alive in the wild since 1981 – has once again been sighted. 

Feared by many to be extinct, the rediscovery was made in January by a team of US and Australian scientists who were searching for the elusive insect on the remote North Moluccas archipelago in north-east Indonesia. 

Including their formidable mandibles, female Wallace’s giant bees can grow to 4.5 cm (1.7 in) long – about the same length as a human thumb. Their wings can span as much as 6 cm (2.3 in). Males are much smaller – roughly half as big as the females. 

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To put their dimensions in context, a female Wallace’s giant bee is approximately four times the size of a European honey bee (see below).

Honorary professor of biology at the University of Sydney and Central Queensland University, Simon Robson, holding the bee found in January 2019 © Clay Bolt: claybolt.com 

The behemoth bug was first scientifically documented in 1858 on the Moluccan island of Bacan. It was described by British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace – after whom the species took its common name – as a "large, black, wasp-like insect, with immense jaws like a stag beetle". 

It wasn’t recorded again until February 1981, when two females were noted by American entomologist Adam Messer on the island of Halmahera, Indonesia. 

© Clay Bolt: claybolt.com 

Nature photographer Clay Bolt – a member of the 2019 expedition team and the first person ever to capture this insect on film alive – described how it felt to make this "holy grail" find. 

"It was absolutely breathtaking to see this 'flying bulldog' of an insect that we weren't sure existed any more," he said. 

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

Even museum specimens of the Wallace's giant bee (pictured here with entomologist Eli Wyman) are extremely rare © Clay Bolt: claybolt.com

The long-lost bee was found at the end of a five-day trek through the Indonesian rainforest, when all hope of a sighting was waning. Local guide, Iswan (surname withheld to protect his privacy and also the bee's precise location), noticed an arboreal termite's nest a couple of metres off the ground on a broken tree trunk. It had a tell-tale large hole on its surface...

Local guide Iswan (with phone) was the one to spot the termite nest – here being studied by the expedition's official photographer, Clay Bolt © Simon Robson 

Knowing that these mounds are the preferred home of Wallace's giant bees, the scientists decided to take a closer look. When Bolt peered into a burrow in the structure, he was delighted to find it was occupied. 

This is the first time a living Wallace's giant bee has been observed at its nest. It lives in the mounds of arboreal termites © Simon Robson 

After waiting a couple of hours – without success – for the female bee to emerge – they decided to gently entice her out with a blade of grass into a clear tube. 

This technique worked and this enabled them to capture and place her in a "fly box" so they could examine and document her more closely. 

It is hoped that confirmation of this species' survival will spur conservation efforts to help preserve it. 

Clay Bolt photographs the female bee in a fly box, before re-releasing her © Simon Robson

At this time, no legislation safeguards this rare insect from being taken from the wild and traded. Beyond the threat from collectors, its habitat is also under great threat from deforestation. The species is currently listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN, though a dearth of data on the species could mean it's even more endangered than we realize. 

Robin Moore of Global Wildlife Conservation – which funded the research trip – said: "We know that putting the news out about this rediscovery could seem like a big risk given the demand. But the reality is that the unscrupulous collectors already know that the bee is out there. 

"By making the bee a world-famous flagship for conservation, we’re confident that the species has a brighter future than if we just let it quietly be collected into oblivion."

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Header and thumbnail photographs: Clay Bolt: claybolt.com