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World's largest bee, once feared extinct, rediscovered in Indonesia

"I simply couldn’t believe it: We had rediscovered Wallace’s Giant Bee," wrote a photographer on the research team that spotted the insect last seen in 1981.
This undated handout picture provided by Global Wildlife Conservation on February 21, 2019, shows entomologist and bee expert Eli Wyman with the first rediscovered individual of Wallaces giant bee (Megachile pluto) in the Indonesian islands of the North Moluccas.Clay Bolt / Global Wildlife Conservation via AFP - Getty Images

The world’s largest bee, last seen by a scientist in 1981, is not extinct after all.

A single female was found and documented earlier this year on an Indonesian island, an Australian university and other groups said Thursday.

The bee, Megachile pluto, also known as "Wallace's giant bee" — named after British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace who discovered it — was seen in January in Indonesia's North Moluccas island group by an international team of researchers looking for the rare species, the University of Sydney said.

"Amid such a well-documented global decline in insect diversity, it's wonderful to discover that this iconic species is still hanging on," team member Simon Robson, honorary professor of the university’s school of life and environmental sciences, said in a statement released by the educational institution.

The bee has a wingspan of more than two and a half inches and is considered the world's largest. Female bees make their nests in termite nests, and the team found the single female giant bee in a termite nest in a tree and about 8 feet off the ground, the university said.

The bee was documented and released.

This undated handout photomontage provided by Global Wildlife Conservation on February 21, 2019, shows a living Wallaces giant bee (Megachile pluto) (R), which is approximately four times larger than a European honeybee, after it was rediscovered in the Indonesian islands of the North Moluccas.Clay Bolt / Global Wildlife Conservation via AFP - Getty Images

A guide and conservationist, Iswan, climbed up and thought he saw something move, and entomologist Eli Wyman of Princeton University climbed up and was certain that it was a bee's nest, photographer Clay Bolt wrote in an account of the discovery published online Thursday by the group Global Wildlife Conservation in Austin, Texas. The group, which supported the effort, runs a lost species program.

"The structure was just too perfect and similar to what we expected to find," Bolt wrote. "I climbed up next, and my headlamp glinted on the most remarkable thing I'd ever laid my eyes on. I simply couldn’t believe it:

"We had rediscovered Wallace's Giant Bee."

It was documented and released back to the nest.

A message to Bolt was not immediately returned Thursday afternoon.

The team traveled to Indonesia in late January, which was around the same time of year that the insect was encountered by Wallace and Adam Messer, who last saw the species in 1981, Bolt wrote in his account. The bee was found on the last day of a five-day stop in the area, the University of Sydney said.

"Messer's rediscovery gave us some insight, but we still know next to nothing about this extraordinary insect," Wyman said in the University of Sydney statement. "I hope this rediscovery will spark research that will give us a deeper understanding of this unique bee and inform any future efforts to protect it from extinction."

The size of the huge bee dwarfs that of a honeybee.

"It was absolutely breathtaking to see this 'flying bulldog' of an insect that we weren’t sure existed anymore," Bolt said in a statement released by the university. Bolt took the first photos and video of the bee after the discovery, the university said.

The discovery raises hopes that more could be found in Indonesia's forests, according to the University of Sydney.

Lynn S. Kimsey, professor of entomology and the director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology at the University of California, Davis, said that the discovery is significant, but that there are many insect species that have not been collected in a long period of time. Kimsey was not involved in the search for the giant bee.

Kimsey, who did field work about the "warrior wasp" in the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, said tropical environments provide many places for species to go unnoticed.

"It’s one of those things about tropical regions, that the environment is so complex that the chances of missing something are pretty damn good," she said.

"If you found one, chances are there’s a population there," she said. "But finding a female is a good thing."

CORRECTION (March 19, 2019, 3:55 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated one professional affiliation for Eli Wyman. He is an entomologist at Princeton, but not a visiting scientist at the American Museum of Natural History.