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Darwin Correspondence Project

To G. R. Waterhouse   1 April [1860]1

Down Bromley Kent

Ap. 1st

My dear Waterhouse

I have looked through my collection of combs & have not a piece with drone cells! I had plenty, & one choice piece, but some months ago I threw away a lot, & I suppose I did not notice that this was a selected piece. Nothing easier, of course, than to replace the piece. I am very sorry that I cannot answer your query. From memory I am convinced that the shorter diameter of oval Queen cell is larger than Drone cell.—

I cannot see how the relation which you wish to establish will help you, as you have to account for so fine a gradation in the two sizes.—   I did indeed most carefully think over subject & came most deliberately to conclusion that distance at which each Bee stands from the others must be the governing element.2 How they instinctively judge this I cannot conjecture. I got comb & Bees from W. Indies solely for this object.— 3 I think you overrate the difficulty of this judgment of distance.4 The jumping spiders can judge distance accurately at which they spring on prey.— One has only to perfect this instinct. I am convinced you are not right in speaking of cell-construction as due to excavation alone; the Bees can certainly build rough wall in proper position for any particular side of cell. They do not require to make whole cell or sphere, but begin to work at one face of the pyramidal basis alone. All that is required is for each Bee to stand in proper relative position & distance with respect to the other Bees.—

I venture to caution you (not from my own knowledge) about the mathematical part of the question; for on the theory of spheres (& spheres must be used to make the pyramidal basis) not one angle or side of the hexagon touches the sides of spheres; the points of intersection lie quite within—   I have had models made.—5 The intersection of cylinders to make simple hexagon does not suffice as guide with respect to the intersection of spheres.—

The tenacity with which your Osmia stuck to same position6 does not apply to Hive Bee for a score of different individuals work one after another at the very commencement of any one cell.—

I much wish I could have answered your query.—

My dear Waterhouse | Yours very sincerely | C. Darwin


The year is suggested by the reference to a ‘comb & Bees from W. Indies’ (see n. 3) and by the relation to the letter from Frederick Smith, 3 April 1860, and the letter to Frederick Smith, 4 April [1860].
The difference in sizes of the drone, worker, and queen cells in a comb complicated the problem of how bees could achieve the hexagonal structure of the cells and yet keep the thickness of walls uniform. CD’s explanation was that the bees instinctively worked at the distances from each other that were required to produce the eventual size and thickness. See Origin, pp. 232–3.
A note in DAR 48 (ser. 2): 44 discusses Waterhouse’s objection: March 31. 1860. Waterhouse seems to dispute that insects can judge of distance— look at springing spider    they must judge— we only want to perfect that.—   So Melipona judges.—   How they judge—whether guided by size of body or by touching each other (not by eyesight), but there is only /1000 difference in diameter of common & Drone cells & this is graduated away by 5 or 6 rows of cells, so that the [over ‘its’] judgment cannot be made by particular parts of body CD presumably meant to write ’11000‘ rather than ’/1000‘.
See Correspondence vol. 7, letter from W. H. Miller, [14 May 1858], and letters from Erasmus Darwin, [8 June 1858] and [after 8 June 1858].
See Correspondence vol. 7, letter from G. R. Waterhouse, 10 February 1858.


Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 27 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Origin: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1859.


Has no drone cells in collection of honeycombs. Discusses construction of cells by bees and ability of bees to judge distances in constructing comb.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
George Robert Waterhouse
Sent from
Source of text
The Natural History Museum (General Special Collections MSS DAR 7)
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2740,” accessed on 16 September 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 8