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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Jeffries Wyman   2 February 1866

Down. | Bromley. | Kent. S.E.

Feb 2 1866

Dear Sir

I am very much obliged to you for your interesting letter of Jan 11th.1 I was aware that the cells of Bees varied a little in dimensions, but did not in the least know to what a degree the variability extended.2 Your statements make the proposition of some, I think, French savant that the size of the cell shd be the standard of all measurements, quite ludicrous.3 This variability of size agrees well with the view which we both I think take of all instincts.4 Your case of the 2 cells separated by a flat bottom appears to me particularly interesting.5

As so much has been written of late about Bees cells, I cannot but think that your facts wd be well worth publishing in a separate paper: should you intend doing so, I shd be grateful for a copy.6 I had not heard of the fossil tadpole-nests,7 nor of Mr Puttnam’s paper on the cells of humble bees; I wish he had sent me a copy of it.8

With respect to your remark that the hexagonal cell always results from the co-operation of several bees, you must remember the comb began by the solitary female wasp.9 Mr F. Smith of the Brit. Museum has lately adduced in Proc. of Ent. Soc. of London several cases of hexagonal combs made by single insects, & others with hexagonal cells at the extreme circumference;10 But in the specimens which I have seen, the hexagons were not very perfect at the circumference. I am glad that you have been attending a little to this subject; I formerly found it very interesting but I have not looked over my notes for several years.11

I may add that Prof. Miller carefully measured for me the thickness of the cell-walls & found great variability in their thickness.12 With my best thanks for your kindness in writing

I remain dear Sir yours very faithfully | Ch. Darwin


See letter from Jeffries Wyman, 11 January 1866 and n. 2. In successive editions of Origin, CD modified his account of the cell-making instinct of the hive-bee to incorporate evidence of variability in the structure of cells (see Peckham ed. 1959, pp. 52, 54, 402–12). For more on CD’s deliberation over the problem of the hive-bee’s cell-building instinct, see Prete 1990.
René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur suggested that the cell of the hive-bee might formerly have been adopted in preference to the pendulum-based standards as a standard unit of measurement (Réaumur 1734–42, 5: 398–9). On pendulums and their limitations as standards of measurement, see McGreevy 1995, 1: 140–2. Although Réaumur had acknowledged that individual cells varied slightly in their dimensions, he observed negligible variation in the mean size of a large sample of cells (ibid., pp. 379–98).
For CD’s view that the shape of the cell of the bee had developed as a result of successive modifications of instinct, see the letter from Jeffries Wyman, 11 January 1866, n. 6.
CD refers to the flattened bases of the abnormal cells illustrated by figures 2 and 3 in the letter from Wyman of 11 January 1866. CD had argued in Origin, pp. 224–7, that the regular shape of the individual cell of the hive-bee, with its pyramidal base, is due to the way that the cells are aggregated to form the comb.
In his letter of 11 January 1866, Wyman had not informed CD of his paper ‘Notes on the cells of the bee’ (Wyman 1866), which he read on 9 January 1866 at a meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in which he referred to CD. There is an annotated, inscribed, copy in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL.
At Wyman’s suggestion, Frederic Ward Putnam had sent CD a copy of Putnam 1863a, which CD would not yet have received (see letter from Jeffries Wyman, 11 January 1866 and nn. 9 and 10, and letter from F. W. Putnam, 29 January 1866). There is an annotated copy in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL.
CD wrote of the queen wasp’s ability to make hexagonal cells in Origin, p. 233. CD had obtained information about wasps’ nests from Erasmus Alvey Darwin, Frederick Smith, and George Robert Waterhouse in 1858 (Correspondence vol. 7); see also Correspondence vol. 8, letter from J. S. Henslow, 7 April 1860.
The comb of the wasp is built by the queen alone (F. Smith 1864, p. 139). Smith described only one species of wasp, Apoica pallida, as building hexagonal combs (ibid., p. 137–8). However, he named three further species as capable of building isolated hexagonal cells (ibid., p. 140), and gave several examples of hexagonal cells occurring at the edge of the comb (ibid., pp. 135–6).
Notes made by CD about bee cells, many dating from between 1858 and 1860, are in the Darwin Archive–CUL (DAR 48: B1–78). See letter from Jeffries Wyman, 11 January 1866 and n. 3.
In 1860, CD obtained information from William Hallowes Miller on the thickness of the cell walls of the hive-bee (see Correspondence vol. 8). Miller’s information on bee cells is cited in Origin 3d ed., p. 252.


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

McGreevy, Thomas. 1995. The basis of measurement. 2 vols. Edited by Peter Cunningham. Chippenham: Picton Publishing.

Origin 3d ed.: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. 3d edition, with additions and corrections. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1861.

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.

Prete, Frederick R. 1990. The conundrum of the honey bees: one impediment to the publication of Darwin’s theory. Journal of the History of Biology 23: 271–90.

Réaumur, René Antoine Ferchault de. 1734–42. Memoires pour servir à l’histoire des insectes. 6 vols. Paris: Imprimerie royale.

Smith, Frederick. 1864. On the construction of hexagonal cells by bees and wasps. [Read 4 April 1864.] Transactions of the Entomological Society of London 3d ser. 2 (1864–6): 131–42.

Wyman, Jeffries. 1866. Notes on the cells of the bee. [Read 9 January 1866.] Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 7 (1865–68): 68–83.


Obliged for JW’s information on variability of size of bees’ cells. Hexagonal cells not always work of several insects. W. H. Miller found great variability in thickness of cell walls.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Jeffries Wyman
Sent from
Source of text
Jeffries Wyman Jr (private collection)
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 4994,” accessed on 29 November 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 14