Catch the buzz: how a tropical holiday led us to find the world’s biggest bee



File 20190221 148523 qptvp2.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Eli Wyman with the elusive Wallace’s Giant Bee.
Clay Bolt, Author provided

Simon KA Robson, University of Sydney

Many people on a tropical island getaway might take a jungle hike, or learn about the local wildlife. My colleagues and I went one better: we tracked down the world’s biggest bee species, which hadn’t been spotted for decades, while on holiday in Indonesia’s North Molucca islands.

Wallace’s giant bee, Megachile pluto, is fascinating for many reasons. It’s the largest of all known living bees, with a body length about that of a human thumb and a wingspan of more than 6cm. What’s more, its last confirmed sighting in the field was in 1981. After numerous efforts to rediscover it, it was unclear whether the species still remained in the wild.

Beenormous: M. pluto is roughly four times the size of a European honeybee.
Clay Bolt, Author provided

The bee also has a special place in scientific history. It was first collected by the British naturalist and explorer Alfred Russel Wallace in 1859, as part of his work in the Malay Archipelago. He described the female bee as “a large black wasp-like insect, with immense jaws like a stag-beetle”.

Wallace not only independently derived the theory of natural selection as an explanation for evolution alongside Charles Darwin, but his detailed studies of the distribution of animals gave rise to the famous Wallace Line, a boundary that splits Australia and Asia and helps to explain the distribution patterns of many plants and animals.




Read more:
Wallacea: a living laboratory of evolution


Holiday plans

How did four biologists from across the globe, two from Australia (myself and Glen Chilton) and two from the United States (Eli Wyman and Clay Bolt), end up on this journey?

My involvement started at the prompting of Glen, who although specialising in ornithology and writing was interested in both Wallace and the rediscovery of potentially extinct species. He became aware of the existence of the world’s largest bee, and after two years of cajoling I agreed that searching for the bee would represent an excellent holiday.

During the planning for our trip, we became aware that Eli and Clay were also, independently, planning to travel to the Moluccas to search for M. pluto. After a brief Skype call we decided it made sense to join forces and collaborate. So despite our two duos never having met in person, we were a team heading out into the field.

And what a great team it was: Eli’s expertise in all things bee-related; Clay’s fantastic photographic skills; Glen’s enthusiasm and knowledge of Wallace; and my own fascination with the evolution of insect behaviour.

On the ground

We converged on the island of Ternate and began our search across the North Molucca islands for termite mounds containing bee-sized holes, helped by two excellent local guides, Ekawati Ka’aba and Iswan Maujad.

M. pluto is a solitary bee species that forms communal nests inside termite mounds, using its mandibles to collect and apply tree resin to the inner walls of its nest. So we knew what to look out for.

After five fruitless days of searching termite mounds, we were about to call it quits and head for a late lunch when we spotted another mound near the edge of a path.

Inspection with a torch and binoculars revealed a hole that looked promising. Clay scaled the tree and reported that the hole looked to be lined with resin – very exciting. Our guides constructed a platform from branches, we inspected the hole in more detail, and there she was. Cue intense excitement and cries of jubilation as we all rushed to peer inside and catch a glimpse.

Now that we had the bee, we had to be able to prove it, so we put away our iPhone cameras in favour of better-quality (but riskier: the bee might escape!) footage with more professional photographic and video equipment. We gently coaxed her out of her nest and into a small flight chamber, and then eventually Clay got the magic shot, where we released the bee back onto her nest and photographed her at the entrance to her home. Mission accomplished.

Capturing the evidence.
Simon Robson, Author provided

Confirming that the world’s largest bee species is still alive is an enticing development for ecologists. We can learn a lot about the ecology, behaviour and ecological significance of this giant. Amid a global decline in many insects, it’s wonderful to discover this special species is still surviving.




Read more:
Ten years after the crisis, what is happening to the world’s bees?


We also hope our discovery will galvanise conservation movements in Indonesia, and we were inspired by the reception our journey met with many people in the conservation and forestry fields of the North Molucca islands.

We would love more work to be done to assess the bee’s current conservation status. Plans to produce a documentary about Wallace and the rediscovery of this bee are underway, and we hope that its rediscovery provides further impetus to conservation efforts generally.

Not a bad outcome for a holiday!The Conversation

Simon KA Robson, Honorary Professor, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Advertisements

Bee aware, but not alarmed: here’s what you need to know about honey bee stings



File 20171116 11028 z8x2g2.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Bees don’t attack unless they feel threatened.
Shutterstock

Ronelle Welton, University of Melbourne and Kymble Spriggs, University of Melbourne

A Victorian man died yesterday after being stung by several bees. While bee sting deaths are rare (bees claim around two Australian lives each year), bees cause more hospitalisations than any venomous creature.

Bee stings cause nearly the same number of deaths each year as snake bites.
The University of Melbourne’s Pursuit/Internal Medicine Journal

Around 60% of Australians have been stung by a honey bee; and with a population of more than 20 million, that’s a lot of us who have just experienced pain and some swelling.

So what happens when we’re stung by a bee, and what determines whether we’ll have a severe reaction?


Further reading: Ants, bees and wasps: the venomous Australians with a sting in their tails


How do bees sting?

Honey bees work as collective group that live as a hive. The group protects the queen, who produces new bees, with worker bees flying out to collect nectar or pollen to bring back to the hive.

Bees have a venom sac and a barbed stinger at the end of their abdomen. This apparatus is a defensive mechanism that is used if they feel under attack; to defend the hive from destruction. The barb from a bee sting pierces the skin to inject the venom, with the bee releasing pheromones that can incite other nearby bees to join the defensive attack.

Honey bees work as a collective.
Shutterstock

The venom is a complex mixture of proteins and organic molecules, that when injected into our body can cause pain, local swelling, itching and irritation that may last for hours. The specific activity of some bee venom components have also been used to treat cancer.


Further reading: Curious Kids: Do bees ever accidentally sting other bees?


A single bee sting is almost always limited to these local effects. Some people, however, develop an allergy to some of these venom proteins. Anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction that is potentially life-threatening, is the most serious reaction our body’s immune system can launch to defend against the venom.

It is our body’s allergy to the bee venom, rather than the venom itself, that usually causes life-threatening issues and hospitalisation.

How do I know if I am allergic?

If you have not been stung by a bee before you are unlikely to be allergic to the venom. However, if you have been stung by a bee, there is the potential to develop an allergy. We do not know why some people become allergic and others don’t, but how often you are stung seems to play a role.

If you have experienced very large local reactions from a bee sting, or symptoms separate from the sting site (such as swelling, rashes and itchy skin elsewhere, dizziness or difficulty breathing) you may have an allergic sensitivity. Your doctor can assess you by taking a full history of reactions. Skin testing or blood allergy testing can help confirm or exclude potential allergy triggers.

An allergy specialist is key to assess people’s risk of severe allergic reactions (anaphylaxis).

There is an effective treatment for severe honey bee allergies, called immunotherapy. This involves the regular administration of venom extracts with doses gradually increased over a period of three to five years. This aims to desensitise the body’s immune system, essentially to “switch off” the allergic reaction to the venom.

Venom immunotherapy is very effective at preventing severe reactions and is available on the Pharmaceutical Benefit Scheme, whereas other immunotherapy treatments in Australia cost an average of A$1,200 per year.

First aid for a bee sting

Bees usually leave their barbed sting in the skin and then die. Remove the sting as soon as possible (within 30 seconds) to limit the amount of venom injected. Use a hard surface such as the edge of a credit card, car key or fingernail to flick/scratch out the barb.

For a minor reaction such as pain and local swelling, a cold pack may help relieve these symptoms.

If a bee stings you around your neck, or you find it difficult to breathe, or experience any wheezing, dizziness or light-headedness, seek medical advice urgently.

Prevention

Despite being a species introduced by European settlers, the honey bee (Apis mellifera) plays an essential role within Australian agriculture. We need to appreciate their essential functions, and try to prevent stings.


Read more: Losing bees will sting more than just our taste for honey


If you see a bee let it be (sorry); don’t swat it or step on them. Our bees don’t attack unless they feel they need to defend their hive.

Do not attempt to locate a hive, call an expert.

The ConversationFor more information on allergies go to the ASCIA website. Local bee keeping groups are a good source of knowledge about local bee populations.

Ronelle Welton, , University of Melbourne and Kymble Spriggs, Clinical Associate Professor, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.