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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Fritz Müller   20 April [1874]1

The Habits of Various Insects

I delayed answering your kind letter of January 1 till I should hav had an opportunity of examining once more some nests of leaf-cutting ants, to which you had directed my attention.2 In the meantime I received Belt’s “Nicaragua,” which I have read with extraordinary interest, and for which I must express to you my hearty thanks.3

I was much surprised to learn from Mr. Belt’s book how closely the far-distant province of Chontales resembles by its vegetation and animal life our own of Sta. Catharina.4 I am thus enabled fully to appreciate the exactness of many of his statements; he is an excellent observer, and most of his theories are very seducing. As to leaf-cutting ants, I have always held the same view which is proposed by Mr. Belt, viz. that they feed upon the fungus growing on the leaves they carry into their nests, though I had not yet examined their stomachs. Now I find that the contents of the stomach are colourless, showing under the microscope some minute globules, probably the spores of the fungus. I could find no trace of vegetable tissue which might have been derived from the leaves they gather; and this, I think, confirms Mr. Belt’s hypothesis.5 Here, as in Nicaragua, the Cecropiæ are always inhabited by ants, but, I think, by only a single species.6 I have cut down hundreds of them and never missed the ants. I wonder that it had never occurred to me that the trees are protected by the ants; but there can be no doubt that this is really the case, for young plants of Cecropiæ, not yet inhabited by ants, are often attacked by herbivorous insects.

A few days ago I caught on the flower of a Vernonia a female moth belonging to the Glaucopidæ, of which family there are here numerous species.7 When I seized it by the wings nearly the whole body became suddenly enveloped in a large cloud of snow-white wool, which came out of a sort of pouch on the ventral side of the abdomen, and consisted of very thin flexuous hairs 1–2mm. long, three, four, or five of which used to proceed from the same point. I preserved the moth alive for some time, and as often as I seized her by the wings, by inflating the abdomen, a large naked membrane became visible, and somewhat protruded behind the first (white) segment of the ventral face of the abdomen (the rest of which is black), and a little more wool appeared under the posterior margin of this segment. I am at a loss as to the meaning of this curious contrivance. There is in the males of the same family an interesting secondary sexual character; they are able to protrude from near the end of the abdomen a pair of long hollow hairy retractile filaments, which in some species exceed the whole body in length.8 In the beautiful Belemnia inaurata there is a second pair of shorter filaments which are wanting in all the other species I examined (Eunomia eagrus, Euchromia jucunda, Agyrta cærulea, Eudule invaria, Leucopsumis sp., Philoros sp., &c., the names of which I owe to the kindness of Dr. A. Gerstäcker, of Berlin).9 In some species, most distinctly in Belemnia inaurata, I perceived a peculiar odour when the filaments were protruded; this, I think, may serve to allure the females, which in all our species appear to be much less numerous than the males.

I mentioned to you that with our stingless honey-bees wax is secreted on the dorsal side of the abdomen;10 now this is also the case with some of our solitary bees, for instance, Anthophora fulvifrons Sm.,11 and with some species nearly allied to that genus. These solitary bees probably use the wax only to cement the materials with which they build their nests. Our species of Melipona and Trigona12 also never employ pure wax in the construction of their cells or of the large pots wherein they guard their provisions; they mix it with clay, resinous substances, &c., so that in some species wax forms hardly 10 per cent. of the material. The only case, as far as I know, in which pure wax is used, is in the construction of a tube, which Trigona jaty Sm.13 builds at the entrance of its nest.

Among European Apidæ, Apis and Bombus are the only genera which wet with honey the pollen they are collecting, and in consequence of this habit the hairs on the outside of the tibiæ of the hind-legs have disappeared. This is also the case with our Meliponæ, Trigonæ, and Euglossæ.14 Now Centris, Tetrapediæ, Epicharis, and some other bees, collect pollen in the same way; but notwithstanding, in some species, the hairs on the tibiæ are developed in an extraordinary degree. This seemed to me rather perplexing, till I lately observed several species of Centris and a Tetrapedia gathering sand in the large hair-brushes of the hind-tibiæ, which accounts for the conservation and excessive development of the hairs.15

With one of our smallest Trigonæ (T. mirim n. sp.),16 of which I have two hives in my garden, I have made a long series of observations on the construction of the combs, in which the young are raised. As in all other species the combs are horizontal and consist of a single layer of hexagonal cells, like those of wasps; but the cells are vertical. There is always in this species (other species behave differently) a set of cells constructed at the same time in the circumference of the two or three uppermost combs. When the cells are ready, they are filled with food, which the bees vomit from their mouths, the queen lays an egg into every cell and these are then immediately shut. The eggs at first lie horizontally; but in the course of the first or second day they assume a perpendicular position, with the thicker end turned upwards, dipping but slightly into the semi-fluid food. The combs are never used more than once; as soon as the young bees have left them (five to six weeks after the laying of the eggs) they are destroyed and new ones built in their place.

Once I assisted at a curious contest, which took place between the queen and the worker bees in one of my hives, and which throws some light on the intellectual faculties of these animals. A set of 47 cells had been filled, 8 on a nearly completed comb, 35 on the following, and 4 around the first cell of a new comb. When the queen had laid eggs in all the cells of the two older combs she went several times round their circumference (as she always does in order to ascertain whether she has not forgotten any cell), and then prepared to retreat into the lower part of the breeding room. But as she had overlooked the four cells of the new comb the workers ran impatiently from this part to the queen, pushing her, in an odd manner, with their heads, as they did also other workers they met with. In consequence the queen began again to go around on the two older combs, but as she did not find any cell wanting an egg she tried to descend; but everywhere she was pushed back by the workers. This contest lasted for a rather long while, till at last the queen escaped without having completed her work. Thus the workers knew how to advise the queen that something was as yet to be done, but they knew not how to show her where it had to be done. In the same hive there appeared to be two political parties among the workers, dissenting about the construction of the combs, one destroying what the other had begun to build; but it would require a very long and tedious exposition to give you the details of the case.

Our several species of honey-bees differ as much in their mental dispositions as they do in external appearance and size (the smallest species, called Trigona lilliput by my brother,17 is only about 2.5mm. long). Some rush furiously out of their nest, whenever an enemy approaches it, attacking and persecuting the offender; others are very tame, and permit close observation of all their work. In one large species I could even observe with a lens the act of their sucking a solution of sugar, which I had given them, and there was no doubt that at least these bees really suck, and do not lap, like dogs or cats, as Milne Edwards,18 Gerstäcker, and most entomologists think.

There is one species (Trigona liomâo Sm., named for my brother by Mr. Frederick Smith himself)19 which never appears to collect honey or pollen from flowers, on which, at least, I have never seen it. It robs other species of their provisions and sometimes takes possession of their nests, killing or expelling the owners. The hives in my garden have often been invaded, and two of them destroyed, by these robbers, and I have seen in the forest several nests, formerly inhabited by other species, occupied by them.

Together with my brother at Lippstadt I intend to publish an essay on the natural history of our stingless honey-bees, but it will probably cost some years to give a tolerably complete account of them.20

Fritz Müller

Itajahy, Santa Catharina, Brazil, April 20


The year is established by the relationship between this letter and the letter to Fritz Müller, 1 January 1874.
CD sent Müller a copy of Thomas Belt’s Naturalist in Nicaragua (Belt 1874). For CD’s high opinion of the book, see the letter to Fritz Müller, 1 January 1874.
For the description of Chontales in central Nicaragua, see Belt 1874, pp. 155–75. Müller’s home on the Itajahy (now Itajaí) river was near Blumenau in Santa Catarina province (now state), in southern Brazil.
Cecropia (the embauba or trumpet tree) is a genus native to the American tropics. About eighty per cent of species have symbiotic associations with ants, principally those of the neotropical arboreal genus Azteca (Valverde and Hanson 2011, p. 47). The species studied by Müller is now known as Azteca muelleri (Longino 1991, pp. 1591–2).
Vernonia is a plant genus in the family Asteraceae with about two hundred species in Brazil. Glaucopidae is a former family of moths that contained some species now within the Arctiidae, or in some systems, the Erebidae (the placement and treatment of various families and subfamilies is in a state of flux).
Müller appears to be describing what would later be known as pheromone distribution organs. These can take the form of eversible hair-pencils, scent brushes, and coremata (filamentous expandable balloon-like organs often located near the genitalia). These are used in the mating process (for more on these structures, see Birch et al. 1990).
Eunomia eagrus is a synonym of Dinia eagrus; Euchromia jucunda is now Cyanopepla jucunda; Eudule invaria is now Eudulophasia invaria. The synonymy of Agyrta caerulea is uncertain (personal communication, Martin Honey, Natural History Museum, London). All the species or genera mentioned now belong to the family Arctiidae except Eudulophasia invaria, now placed in the Geometridae. Müller refers to Adolph Gerstaecker.
Müller had described his initial observations on the habits of stingless honey-bees in his letter of [c. January 1874].
Anthophora fulvifrons is a synonym of Melitoma taurea, the mallow bee.
Most of Müller’s research focused on species of the genera Melipona and Trigona. For more on Fritz Müller’s work on stingless honey–bees, see Möller ed. 1915–21, 2: 208ff., and West 2003, pp. 178–82.
Trigona jaty is now Tetragonisca angustula.
Euglossa is a genus of neotropical solitary or semi-solitary orchid bees.
Centris, Tetrapedia, and Epicharis are genera of oil-collecting solitary or semi-solitary bees. Cells of these bees are often constructed of a mixture of sand and oil.
The taxon Trigona mirim is now considered nomen nudum; that is, it lacks an adequate description according to the rules of zoological nomenclature. The species may have been Plebeia minima (Schwartz 1948, p. 31).
Hermann Müller referred to Trigona liliput as an informal name for the smallest species of Trigona found in the district of Itajahy in H. Müller 1883, p. 248. The name was never published, but he probably referred to the bee later named Trigona minima, now Plebeia minima (Jesus Santiago Moure, 2008, Catálogo de abelhas Moure, (accessed 9 May 2013)).
Henri Milne-Edwards.
Müller refers to Trigona limâo (described in F. Smith 1863, p. 506), now Lestrimelitta limao.
In a letter to Hermann Müller of 23 March 1874, Fritz Müller sent the text and illustrations of a lecture he had presented to a meeting of the local cultural society. The text, which focused on the comparative anatomy of stingless bees and details of cell construction in different species, is reproduced in Möller ed. 1915–21, 2: 257–92. Further observations on the habits of stingless bees by Fritz Müller were presented in a talk by Hermann Müller to the combined zoological and botanical section of the Westphalian provincial association in December 1874, and an enlarged version was published in Zoologischer Garten (F. Müller 1875). Aside from a few other very short publications, no fuller study of Brazilian stingless bees was produced by Fritz or Hermann Müller.


FM gives his own observations of leaf-cutting ants, which support those of Thomas Belt in his book [The naturalist in Nicaragua (1873)]. [See 9223.] These ants feed only upon the fungus that grows upon the leaves that they carry to their nests.

He has caught a moth of the Glaucopidæ that when touched emitted a cloud of snow-white wool.

Observations on the stingless bees of Brazil.

Letter details

Letter no.
Johann Friedrich Theodor (Fritz) Müller
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Itajahy, Santa Catharina, Brazil
Source of text
Nature, 11 June 1874, pp. 102–3

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 9422A,” accessed on 26 May 2019,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 22