It is somewhat counterintuitive to say that a giant bee, one the size of an adult’s thumb with large pincer-like mouthparts, is hard to spot. Yet this is precisely the case with Wallace’s giant bee (Megachile pluto), which has only three documented live sightings in the last 400 years or so.
That’s why the bee’s recent sighting, reported in the Maluku Islands, made news all over the world. Not much is known beyond its habit of building resin nests in live termite mounds, which adds a component of drama. The fact that such an eye-catching creature with large jaws managed to elude spotting lends a dash of mystery.
There is, however, a more sinister side to the story. A dead specimen of Wallace’s giant bee was sold for US$9,100 on eBay last year. The nature photographer who reported the latest sighting is worried people will start hunting the bees as the news of its rediscovery spreads.
Efforts are being made to conceal the location of this last sighting.
While this effort to protect the bee may be successful in the short run, a long-term plan to protect it and other endangered species like it is needed. Specifically, the government ought to incorporate environmental education into our curriculum, textbooks and day-to-day teaching so we all understand the value of our diverse ecosystem and its importance to our daily lives.
Indonesia is a home to over 300 species listed as endangered. Unfortunately, protecting these species is difficult. The Wallace’s giant bee, for example, lives in a forest habitat threatened by agricultural expansion. The local community could protect the bee by not expanding their farmlands, but this will come at the expense of their livelihoods without an obvious benefit to the farmers.
Many of the endangered species do not bring obvious economic benefit to their human neighbors. Their value is often hidden in a web of interactions among plants, animals and human society. Many bees and wasps carry pollen from one flower to the next; without which many plants would never bear fruit. Certain birds and even bats also provide the same service. This basic, yet subtle, understanding of our dependence on animals and plants around us is crucial in negotiating the choices inherent in species conservation. This is why environmental education is important.
Environmental education empowers students to explore environmental issues, make informed decisions and translate this into action. Environmental education does not stop at teaching about nature but goes further to teach for nature. It does not stop at teaching facts, it also inculcates values of nature and invites students to translate the knowledge into action.
For example, a biology module on flowers should not stop after describing the different parts of a flower. It should further describe the process of pollination and how many of the “ordinary” animals around us are busy taking part in this process.
The teacher can invite students to imagine the world without these animals and what would happen to our ability to produce food without them. Furthermore, the teacher can also link daily examples of practices that endanger these animals, such as pesticide abuse and deforestation.
Unfortunately, the approach does not seem to be reflected in Indonesian textbooks. Lyn Parker, an anthropologist and researcher on Indonesia, recently went through some of the textbooks used in primary and secondary education and found them wanting in terms of environmental education.
One only needs to look across the strait for a success story in environmental education. The Singaporean National Parks Board partnered with primary and secondary schools in Singapore to introduce green open spaces for students’ learning. In one school, a water-wheel turning water flow into hydroelectric energy was used to teach students about clean energy. In another, students cross-bred orchids and inserted the school name into the hybrid’s moniker “Dendrobium Hougang primary school”. Environmental education is weaved through the curriculum and the gardens become its living laboratories.
True, it will take time to incorporate environmental education into our curriculum, textbooks and classrooms. It will take even longer for the fruits of these endeavors to show as the new generation of students start making decisions that affect the environment. This is why incorporating the approach in our education system should be only one of the many tactics employed in conservation. Short-term outreach programs are also needed to raise awareness of the importance of forest habitat among local communities.
Indeed, a multi-country study from Southeast Asia found that such outreach improved local appreciation of hidden services provided by forest animals and plants. The same study also indicated that providing alternative sources of income helped lessen pressures on forest habitat and boost conservation. In many cases, including that of the giant bee conservation, this includes improving the productivity of the existing farmland, which will decrease the temptation for agricultural expansion.
Several types of actions are needed to make a difference in conserving Indonesia’s rare animals and plants. Safe-keeping of sensitive information such as the location of rare species sightings, environmental outreach on the value of certain habitats and the provision of alternative sources of income will help, but they’re not enough.
If we want a batting chance to permanently conserve Wallace’s giant bee, and the other 300 plus endangered species found in Indonesia, we need to start by rewriting the textbooks and teaching for nature in our classrooms.