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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Frederick Smith   26 February 1858

Brit Museum

26th. Feby. 1858.

My dear Sir

Your ant with the bright red head is as you suspect the F. sanguinea—the other is F. rufa.1 Sanguinea may be known readily by examining the facial area which is dull or semiopake— in F. rufa it is ⁠⟨⁠  ⁠⟩⁠sing & more angulated— diagram

I should think it is rather too early for predatory attack, when I saw a foray of the kind it was when the nest of F. nigra had pupæ of workers in it—2 just now I suspect only larvas or pupas of males & female are to be met with—you will have the best chance Morng or Eveng. during the ⁠⟨⁠rest⁠⟩⁠ of the day, you will not see anything of the kind—a dull day is as good as Morng or Eveng.— 3

I have before me a comb of a Sps. of Polistes,4 and in this as in all combs in which a separate foundation is laid for each cell—the hexagonal form rises from a cup-shaped foundation5 so that the origin of each angle begins at the same point of the curve and therefore if the cupshaped base is removed—the basal edge must be diagram in nests of some Brazilian wasps. (Polybia)—the first comb is protected by an outer covering thus— diagram on this covering the next layer of cells are built and here I have seen hexagonal bases to the cells, the walls rising at once perpendicular from the angles6

believe me, yours f⁠⟨⁠aithf⁠⟩⁠ully | Fredk ⁠⟨⁠Sm⁠⟩⁠ith

CD annotations

crossed pencil
3.6 an outer covering] ‘an outer’ underl pencil; ‘[two words illeg]added pencil


CD may have visited Smith during his stay in London, 16–20 February (see letter to J. D. Hooker, 23 February [1858]). Smith described the known species of British ants in F. Smith 1854 and revised this list in F. Smith 1857. Annotated copies of these works are bound together in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL. Formica rufa was the most common British ant, whereas F. sanguinea had been found only in certain areas of southern England (F. Smith 1854, pp. 101, 103).
CD must have asked Smith about an appropriate time to watch out for ants making a ‘maurauding expedition’ to capture larvae of other species of ants to turn into ‘slaves’. CD described such expeditions in Natural selection, p. 513.
CD’s interest in the slave-making ant, F. sanguinea, had been stimulated by reading Smith’s account of the subject (F. Smith 1854). In CD’s copy of the work, Smith’s description of a similar attack on a nest was marked (p. 99).
Smith had exhibited the nests of a Brazilian species of the wasp Polistes at a meeting of the Entomological Society on 1 June 1857 (Transactions of the Entomological Society of London n.s. 4 (1856–8), Proceedings, p. 77). Smith believed that Polistes originally constructed a hexagonal cell, not, as George Robert Waterhouse suggested, cylinders that later became hexagons (see letter from G. R. Waterhouse, 13 February 1858). Smith subsequently expressed these views at a meeting of the Entomological Society on 7 July 1858 (Transactions of the Entomological Society of London n.s. 5 (1858–61), Proceedings, p. 35).
At this point in the letter there is a diagram, which has not been reproduced because of the fragmentation of the manuscript.
CD examined these nests, according to a note in DAR 48 (ser. 2): 21: May /58/ Saw in Glass-case B. Mus. a Polistes nest, in which some of [‘combs’ del] cells produced with cylinders.— saw cylindrical base made by Bees, but F. Smith does not know of any [‘cylin’ del] spherical cells.— He showed me that outside cells of wasps nest had traces of angle & says this is so even in 3 first cells formed by female wasps.— Polybia makes cells either concave or quite flat on roof over previous comb. CD underlined twice in pencil the passage: ‘He showed me … traces of angle’.


Natural selection: Charles Darwin’s Natural selection: being the second part of his big species book written from 1856 to 1858. Edited by R. C. Stauffer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1975.

Smith, Frederick. 1854. Essay on the genera and species of British Formicidæ. [Read 4 December 1854.] Transactions of the Entomological Society of London n.s. 3 (1854–6): 95–135.

Smith, Frederick. 1857. Revision of an essay on the British Formicidæ, published in the transactions of the society. [Read 7 December 1857.] Transactions of the Entomological Society of London n.s. 4 (1856–8): 274–84.


Identifies an ant described by CD and discusses the predatory habits of Formica sanguinea.

Describes some wasps’ nests.

Letter details

Letter no.
Frederick Smith
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
British Museum
Source of text
DAR 177: 191 (fragile)
Physical description
ALS 4pp damaged

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2226,” accessed on 29 January 2023,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 7