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Darwin Correspondence Project

From T. W. Woodbury   17 March 1863

Mount Radford, | Exeter.

17th March 1863

Dear Sir

I am exceedingly obliged to you for favouring me with specimens of bees and their comb from Africa.1 I suppose the bees are apis Adansonii as they appear to tally with the description of that species in the Naturalist’s Library.2 They appear almost identical with apis Ligustica with the exception of being smaller. Very careful comparison of their comb with that of mellifica enables me to pronounce the cells exactly the same 〈size〉

How singular it appears that this small bee as well as the large species apis testacea do not vary one iota in the size of their cells from our European species! It would be very interesting to ascertain if the small species so common in India (apis Indica) also makes the same sized cell.

These bees being so small would not repay the trouble of attempting to import them,3 but I still have a strong impression that the large Indian species (apis dorsata) would be very valuable. 〈I〉 dare say you may have seen my queries regarding them together with the answers in “The Field.”4 Little practical information has resulted, nor do I yet see my way to taking any steps for their importation. Have you noticed that the first four hives of Ligustica sent by me to Australia have all got there in safety?5

I have never heard if the piece of partially completed artificial comb proved at all interesting to you6

Yours greatly obliged | T W Woodbury

C. Darwin Esq


See letter to T. W. Woodbury, 15 March [1863] and n. 3.
J. Duncan 1840, p. 274. J. Duncan 1840 was volume 18 in William Jardine’s Naturalist’s Library, published between 1833 and 1843.
In the summer of 1862, Woodbury had considered importing live bees from Africa, although with little hope that they would be ‘extraordinary honey-gatherers’ (see Correspondence vol. 10, letter from T. W. Woodbury, 9 August 1862).
The Field 21 (1863): 16, 60, 98, and 130.
At the International Exhibition in London in 1862, Edward Wilson, founder of the Acclimatisation Society of Victoria, ordered four hives of Apis ligustica through the London specialists George Neighbour & Sons. Woodbury, who had introduced the species to England, was consulted and asked to advise on packing the hives. The hives were shipped out of Southampton in September, and arrived in Australia in December, without the expected losses. See Journal of Horticulture and Cottage Gardener n.s. 3 (1862): 523 and n.s. 4 (1863): 235.
The reference is apparently to manufactured wax sheets with rhomboidal impressions, used by bee-keepers to increase the yield of honey by reducing the amount of wax that hive-bees needed to produce in making their comb. The bees were found to excavate the artificial sheet further, and to use the wax thus obtained in the construction of the cells. The invention was introduced to Britain from Germany in 1862. See Neighbour 1865, pp. 70–1. Woodbury apparently sent CD the comb in December 1862 (see Correspondence vol. 10, letter to T. W. Woodbury, 7 December [1862]). CD had made a study of bee-cell construction in 1858, and discussed the subject in Origin, pp. 224–35, as part of the chapter on instinct, where he remarked (p. 224) upon the fact that ‘a skilful workman, with fitting tools and measures, would find it very difficult to make cells of wax of the true form, though this is perfectly effected by a crowd of bees working in a dark hive’.


Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 27 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Duncan, James. 1840. The natural history of bees: comprehending the uses and economical management of the British and foreign honey-bee; together with the known wild species. Vol. 38 of The naturalist’s library, edited by William Jardine. 40 vols. 1833–43. Edinburgh: W. H. Lizars.

Neighbour, Alfred. 1865. The apiary; or, bees, bee-hives, and bee culture: being a familiar account of the habits of bees, and the most improved methods of management, with full directions, adapted for the cottager, farmer, or scientific apiarian. London: Kent & Co.; Geo. Neighbour & Sons.

Origin: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1859.


Bee species of different sizes build cells the same size.

Letter details

Letter no.
Thomas White Woodbury
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 181: 150
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 4049,” accessed on 25 September 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 11