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Darwin Correspondence Project

From H. W. Bates   30 September 1861

King St   Leicester

30 Sept. 1861

My Dear Sir

Before you go to the B.M. to inspect the Volucellæ flies I wish to give you more exact information about them.1 The species which resembles Humble bees is the Volucella bombylans (authors) and the constant variety is V. plumata (Meigen) (= V. mystacea Fabr.)— One of these resembles Bombus lapidarius, the other B. terrestris.— These are the only two varieties found in this neighbourhood and until recently the only two described. They were always considered as distinct species until Lepelletier de St Fargeau observed them to copulate,—2 they are not the sexes, however;—as there are males & females in each form. The female lays its eggs & the larvæ are bred on the nests of Humble bees.—

It has been lately shown that these two forms are united by a series of varieties or connecting links to the number of five; one of which V. hæmorrhoidalis (Zetterstedt) has been described as a distinct species. They are found on the continent but I believe they are not found in all localities together with the two chief forms. I have never observed them.

Another species of Volucella, V. inanis resembles a wasp; its ova & larvæ are found in wasps’ nests.—

A third common species is V. pellucens   this in its dress is entirely unlike either of the other two species. I cannot find any account of its larva. It would be interesting to know whether it is parasitic also. The perfect insect has not the slightest resemblance to a Hymenopterous insect, but is of the same general appearance as the bulk of the Volucellæ species of which I took many in S. America.

It would appear then that V. pellucens retains the facies of its genus, but that the other two have been widely diverted in this respect from their normal type, in strict connection with their habit of depositing their ova in the nests of wasps and Bombi. It is not necessary to explain to you that I mean—the adult insects being exposed to the attacks of the Bombi near their nests,—their resemblance is explicable on the theory of Nat. Selection.

Precisely the same phenomenon occurs in genera of butterflies in S. America where some species wear the dress of species belonging to widely different families. But here the object of the analogical resemblance is different. Here it is because the one set of species is exposed in the adult state to a persecution by insect enemies from which the other set is free.3

This entire class of facts is extremely numerous in insects. But they are very complex. It requires the most subtle & flexible nature of mind to understand & explain them. But whilst they are unexplained on the rational theory, they remain one of the strongest arguments to the believers in the miraculous in creation.

Dr Collingwood’s paper “on recurrent animal forms” does not touch this class of facts, either in description or explanation.4 All that he can say is that similar habits &c will produce analogical resemblance between species belonging to widely different families. But ours are not general resemblances   they are close specific resemblances as far as external appearance is concerned. But, as I have shown in the paper I mentioned to you,—the causes which produce close specific resemblances do not & cannot operate except in those forms which are already made generally similar by the operation of other causes.5

I am extremely obliged to you for your advice regarding my proposed book. It will be very useful to me. It was quite new to me that I could agree with a publisher to sell him only the 1st edition. I shall find it very difficult, I am afraid, to write in a simple style. I have begun to try to write a chapter or two—but I find it very perplexing, in the mass of details contained in my journals, to select what would be likely to be most interesting to the public. It will never do, I think to narrate even the chief events consecutively of 11 years travel & residence. I went backwards & forwards. In your voyage there was something similar;6 & I shall try to work mine into a compact whole but can never imitate the wonderful art you have shown in doing so. When I have finished a chapter or two I will apply to Murray & then shall feel much obliged to you if you would write him a word or two by way of introduction.7

Yours sincerely | H W Bates

CD annotations

9.1 I am … introduction. 9.11] crossed blue crayon
Top of first page: ‘All about Volucella’ pencil


CD had expressed a desire to see the exhibition at the British Museum of Amazonian insects collected by Bates in South America (see letter to H. W. Bates, 25 September [1861]). Bates had written to CD about the fly Volucella in the letter from H. W. Bates, [before 25 September 1861].
Amédée Louis Michel Lepeletier de Saint-Fargeau was an eminent French entomologist. His observation of Volucella was cited in Macquart 1834–5, p. 479 (see letter from H. W. Bates, [1 December] 1861).
Bates refers to mimetic butterflies. See Bates 1861a and 1861b. See also letter to H. W. Bates, 25 September [1861].
In Journal of researches, CD departed from strict chronological order by conflating natural history observations that were made over a period of years (see Journal of researches 2d ed., p. 40).


Bates, Henry Walter. 1861. Contributions to an insect fauna of the Amazon valley. Lepidoptera: Heliconidæ. [Read 21 November 1861.] Transactions of the Linnean Society of London 23 (1860–2): 495–566.

Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 29 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Journal of researches 2d ed.: Journal of researches into the natural history and geology of the countries visited during the voyage of HMS Beagle round the world, under the command of Capt. FitzRoy RN. 2d edition, corrected, with additions. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1845.

Journal of researches: Journal of researches into the geology and natural history of the various countries visited by HMS Beagle, under the command of Captain FitzRoy, RN, from 1832 to 1836. By Charles Darwin. London: Henry Colburn. 1839.

Macquart, Justin Pierre Marie. 1834–5. Histoire naturelle des insectes. Diptères. 2 vols. Paris. [Vols. 3,9]


Discusses the mimicry of the Volucella flies, and the bees and wasps they mimic. Compares it with the different object of mimicry in butterflies.

Refers to incompleteness of Cuthbert Collingwood’s paper [? "On homophormism, or organic representative forms", Proc. Liverpool Lit. & Philos. Soc. 14 (1860): 181–216].

Thanks CD for help in selecting a publisher for his book [The naturalist on the river Amazons (1863)].

Letter details

Letter no.
Henry Walter Bates
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 205.10: 92
Physical description
ALS 4pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3271,” accessed on 9 June 2023,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 9