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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Frederick Smith   26 August 1869


August. 26th. | 1869.

My dear Sir

The bee to which you allude from Australia—the male of which of a bright brassy colour and clothed with rich fulvous pubescence—the female being of a steel-blue colour—is the Lestis bombylans.1 The female is as brilliant as Musca vomitoria2—the common blue-bottle—having—frequently bright tints of vivid green—

Your conjecture as to the Male of Anthophora being of a rich fulvous brown— the female is quite black.—3

The Males in the genus Bombus vary as you say—and the same may be said of their parasites the Apathi— the Males of A. campestris vary extremely—so much so—that Mr. Kirby has described three or four as distinct species;4 some males are gaily coloured black and yellow being banded and tufted with the latter colour—others are clothed principally with yellow—with narrow bands of black intermixed on the abdomen—and from these standards—every shade of colouration occurs between them and a totally black variety— The female varies from a black and yellow banded insect to a totally black one—and this species does not confine its parasitism to one species— it has been obtained from nests of two or three species of Bombus.

The greatest sexual differences in coloration certainly obtains among the solitary bees—as in Anthophora and Xylocopa— in the latter genus many species consist of black females and bright yellow males

believe me | Yours very truly | Fredk. Smith

Chas. Darwin Esqre.


CD’s letter to Smith has not been found. Smith refers to Lestis bombylans (now Xylocopa bombylans, the Australian green carpenter bee). CD cited Smith’s description of this bee in Descent 1: 336.
Musca vomitoria is now Calliphora vomitoria.
Smith refers to Anthrophora retusa, the potter flower bee. CD cited Smith’s description of this bee in Descent 1: 336.
Smith refers to the Bombus subgenus Apathus (now Psithyrus) or cuckoo bumble-bees, which are kleptoparasites on other bumble-bee species. (Kleptoparasitism is a form of parasitism in which an animal habitually steals food from members of another species (OED).) Apathus campestris is now Bombus (Psithyrus) campestris. In Monographia apum Angliæ (Kirby 1802, 2: 331, 333–5, 371), William Kirby had described five species that Smith later synonymised with Apathus campestris (see Smith 1853–9, 1: 384).


Descent: The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1871.

Kirby, William. 1802. Monographia apum Angliæ: or, an attempt to divide into their natural genera and families, such species of the Linnean genus Apis as have been discovered in England; with descriptions and observations: to which are prefixed some introductory remarks upon the class Hymenoptera, and a synoptical table of the external parts of these insects. Ipswich: Printed for the author by J. Raw.

OED: The Oxford English dictionary. Being a corrected re-issue with an introduction, supplement and bibliography of a new English dictionary. Edited by James A. H. Murray, et al. 12 vols. and supplement. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1970. A supplement to the Oxford English dictionary. 4 vols. Edited by R. W. Burchfield. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1972–86. The Oxford English dictionary. 2d edition. 20 vols. Prepared by J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1989. Oxford English dictionary additional series. 3 vols. Edited by John Simpson et al. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1993–7.

Smith, Frederick. 1853–9. Catalogue of the hymenopterous insects in the collection of the British Museum. 7 parts. London: printed by order of the Trustees.


On the colours of sexes of Australian bees [see Descent 1: 366].

Letter details

Letter no.
Frederick Smith
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 82: 1–2
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 6871,” accessed on 16 September 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 17