GRW's observations of and ideas on bees' and wasps' cells.
Feb. 13. 58
My dear Darwin
I do very much wish that you could see the Wasp's nest alluded to by
In the same small case with the nest just noticed, which I will call Smith's
nest, there is the nest of a nearly allied insect (genus Mischocyttarius) It is
composed of 3 full grown cells & one very young one—they are
all cylindrical (or rather conico-cylindrical, for they are
Then we come to a fourth nest (I am taking them just as they stand) and this is made by
an insect of the same genus as that which made “Smith's
nest”—viz. the genus Icaria— It is built on a
thin piece of stick, & is composed of say 20 or more cells—at
first a single cell, & this followed by 2 cells, then 2 more
behind these then 3 & so on, the whole mass of cells forming a long narrow comb
which, so far as I recollect, presents, at the widest part, about 4 cells
abreast— Here are the eight first cells
I made the sketch from my memorandum & no sooner had I done it than I felt sure
it was wrong—went to look at the nest, and, as usual, I find the additional
cells are built in the interstices of other cells—it should be thus—
Now for a word or two about the Wasp's, or Hornet's nest, for they are the same—& here I shall no doubt trouble you with stuff which I have told you before, but I know not what I have said in our conversations—in print I think I have never given any account of the Wasp's nest— There then, is this important difference between the wasp's nest & the Hive Bee's—viz. that in the latter case as number of insects are at work upon the nest at one and the same time but in the case of the Wasp the first comb, at least, is made by a single female; and, the most important fact connected with my theoretical views as to its structure is this—that the wasp never builds a single, isolated cell.—but begins her work by building parts of many cells and these parts of cells are closely packed together—
Owen thinks he has altogether smashed my theory by bringing the Wasp's cell to bear upon it, but when a theory is made to explain one thing (the Hive Bee's nest) and it is found that what has literally been set down, will not explain another thing, I take it, it is but just that I should be entitled to something more than the mere words used in the first case—what can fairly be inferred, & indeed, what almost follows of necessity, is due to me— I take it that the essence of my theory is that the insects in question all work in segments of circles & that the hexagonal cells, may be (theoretically) looked upon as altered cylinders— The Hive bee works apparently upon the inner side of the cell, leaving her neighbours to look to the outside— The wasp works at both sides of her cell, and theoretically alters her bit of cylinder as soon it is made, or why is it that the cells of the outermost row of the comb are only angular on the inner side—my answer is she can't get at the outside of these cells—there's no room, for the outermost row is nearly in contact with the walls of the nest— There's another part of the Wasp's cell that the insect perhaps can't, or at any rate does not meddle with, & that is the bottoms of the cells—these are hemispherical externally & thus differ from the Hive Bee's cells— in one case the cells come in contact with other cells at the bottom, & in the other they do not!!— I cannot help, here, putting a question to those who have no faith in my explanations— It is known that if a number of circles of equal size are packed close, side by side, every circle must be surrounded by six others— Now sup-posing such were not the case, & that every circle was surrounded say by 5 other circles—(& here by way of parenthesis I would ask, have you looked well to the cells of the different kinds of Bees & wasps, & especially have you paid attention to the numerous exceptions that occur to the hexagonal form)— Do you think that the cells of Bees &c would be hexagonal, if the supposed case about the circles were a true one—?
Well I have said that the cells of the outermost row in the completed
wasp's comb are not hexagonal—this is not always the case, I can show
you a comb of a Hornet's nest, (& I regard the Hornet as a Wasp) in
which the material of many of the outer cells has been removed or worked upon in such a
manner as to give to them a hexagonal form, though less perfect often than the other
It is now 4 o'clock & I must send this to the post, for if I do as I did yesterday & the day before leave it until “tomorrow” you will never get it— I couldn't finish what I had to say when I wrote before & I found I had said so much too much for you to read that I have written fresh letters 3 days running— This is the worst as to quantity—
Faithfully Yours | Geo R Waterhouse
- f1 2216.f1CD had asked Frederick Smith, a colleague of Waterhouse in the zoological department of the British Museum, for information on social insects (Correspondence vol. 6, letter from Frederick Smith, 10 November 1857). Smith had exhibited the nests of Icaria and other wasps mentioned in the letter at a meeting of the Entomological Society of London on 7 January 1856 (Transactions of the Entomological Society of London n.s. 3 (1854–6), Proceedings, pp. 128–30). Smith again exhibited the nests, which had been collected at Port Natal, South Africa, in March 1858 (ibid., n.s. 5 (1858–61), Proceedings, p. 9).
- f2 2216.f2Waterhouse explained these views more fully at a meeting of the Entomological Society on 5 April 1858 (Transactions of the Entomological Society of London n.s. 5 (1858–61), Proceedings, pp. 17–18).
- f3 2216.f3Richard Owen. Waterhouse subsequently referred to this criticism in his discussion of the formation of bees' cells at the meeting of the Entomological Society on 5 April 1858 (see n. 2, above). Waterhouse's theory of the origin of cells depended on several cells being built simultaneously, whereas wasps and hornets construct only one cell at a time. See also letter from Frederick Smith, 26 February 1858.
- f4 2216.f4Waterhouse's theory was based on the claim that bees form circular bases out of wax and that the resulting cylindrical cells only later assume the common hexagonal shape as a result of pressure exerted by the six surrounding cells ([Waterhouse] 1835, pp. 153–5).
- f5 2216.f5CD later examined the nests mentioned in the letter. In DAR 48 (ser. 2): 9, there is a note headed ‘In British Museum’ that reads: ‘Mischocyttarus labiatus (Social Vespidæ with cylindrical cells— Are they true & equally distant— Icaria is social Vesp. with external cells, hexagonal, in double row on a Branch— *Get drawing [added](For my theory I must assume that Bees can make spheres & at given distance) The Wasp with Hexagonal Comb is sub-genus of Polistes’.
- f6 2216.f6Letter from G. R. Waterhouse, 10 February 1858.