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Darwin Correspondence Project

Life sciences

Over the course of his working life Darwin studied a wide range of organisms from coral to worms, dogs to pigeons, orchids to carnivorous plants.  His letters often describe in great detail experiments and observations some of which never made it into print.


Tree bee (Bombus hypnorum)
Tree bee (Bombus hypnorum), showing unique colour pattern
Nigel Jones

A tale of two bees

Darwinian evolution theory fundamentally changed the way we understand the environment and even led to the coining of the word 'ecology'. Darwin was fascinated by bees: he devised experiments to study the comb-building technique of honey bees and used his children to observe the flight paths of bumblebees around their home.

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Hypothetical sphinx moth
Hypothetical sphinx moth, illustration by T. W. Wood, Quarterly Journal of Science 4 (1867)
Cambridge University Library

Was Darwin an ecologist?

One of the most fascinating aspects of Charles Darwin’s correspondence is the extent to which the experiments he performed at his home in Down, in the English county of Kent, seem to prefigure modern scientific work in ecology.

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The evolution of honeycomb

Honeycombs are natural engineering marvels, using the least possible amount of wax to provide the greatest amount of storage space, with the greatest possible structural stability. Darwin recognised that explaining the evolution of the honey-bee’s comb-building abilities was essential if his theory of natural selection was to be taken seriously, and in the 1850s he carried out his own experiments at his home at Down House in Kent, and exchanged many letters on the subject. One correspondent even drew an ingenious analogy with a plum pie - you can try this at home!

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