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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Henry Wenman Newman   [before 22 October 1861]1

The queens or females of the humble bees are not fertilised in the air, and the act of fertilisation takes place either in the nest or on some flower, or on the ground.2

I have made observations, more or less, since the year 1798, and give the result—scarcely half a dozen instances in sixty years.

1st. I have seen one couple come out of the nest of the Bombus terrestris; these flew away instantly, and were united until I lost sight of them.

2nd. I observed one male and a female come out of the nest of the Bombus lucorum, they separated near the entrance of the nest in the earth. The male was unable to fly, I examined him and found evident signs of recent connection.

3rd. The best view I ever had was at Upton Hall, in Northamptonshire, where I saw a male come to a young queen which was busy on a flower; they clung together, and went about 10 yards to another flower, and I watched these for about ten minutes until they separated; the male continued united during their flight, and both used their wings apparently with great ease.

4th. I saw a couple of B. hortorum on a flower, and watched them until they separated; they took one flight and separated in about seven minutes from the time I saw them first. All these cases were in the month of August.

5th. The next case was of B. muscorum. I watched a male of the B. muscorum among some long grass—at first I thought it was coming out or going into its nest, but on going very near I observed the bee alight near a young female of the same species, and after showing signs of kindness they flew off in union, but so rapidly that I could not follow to observe them again; this last was about the first week in September. The B. muscorum is the latest in appearing and the latest in nidification. I have seen nests of the B. muscorum as late as the last week in August, when the combs contained unhatched drones; and the latter almost always hatched before the young queens.

Wasps.— I have never except once observed the fertilisation of the wasp near Thornbury.3 On the 7th of September, 1847, I was walking with my bailiff, Mr. Cossham, of Thornbury, when we saw a curious long-looking insect about 20 feet in the air; on its coming very near (it was gradually descending) it proved to be a male and female wasp united. Each of the wasps was trying to fly in a different direction. They fell to the ground, and I immediately crushed them both so as to kill them, but not to mutilate them at all. I had them carefully packed and sent to the Committee of the Entomological Society, in London, directed to their Secretary; but as ill luck would have it, the box was intercepted by some letter-carrier or other person, and never reached its destination. The queen wasp was more than double the size of the male.—

H. W. Newman, late Lieut.-Col. (Commandant) the South Gloucester Militia, Hillside, Cheltenham.

N.B.— In late seasons such as 1816 and 1860, and in a few springs such as May, 1837–1838, I have noticed nearly one month difference in the hatching of the drones or male Bombi, and I have no hesitation in saying that the fertilising of the young queens, particularly of the B. muscorum may be retarded until the second week in September.


Dated by the publication of the letter in the 22 October 1861 issue of the Journal of Horticulture.
See the letter to the Journal of Horticulture, [before 22 October 1861], which was printed immediately before Newman’s response.
Thornbury Park, Gloucestershire, had formerly been Newman’s home.


Replies to CD’s query (see 3778): the queens or females of the humble bees are not fertilised in the air. Offers a number of observations relating to the fertilisation of bees and wasps, which he has made in the course of sixty years.

Letter details

Letter no.
Henry Wenman Newman
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Hillside, Cheltenham
Source of text
Journal of Horticulture, Cottage Gardener, and Country Gentleman n.s. 2 (1861–2): 76–7.

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3292A,” accessed on 22 September 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 9