RECORD: Darwin, C. R. 1874. Recent researches on termites and honey-bees. Nature. A Weekly Illustrated Journal of Science 9 (19 February): 308-309.

REVISION HISTORY: Scanned, OCRed, corrected and edited by John van Wyhe 2003-8. Text of Müller's letter transcribed (single key) by AEL Data 9.2010. RN3


[page] 308

RECENT RESEARCHES ON TERMITES AND HONEY-BEES

THE accompanying letter, just received from Fritz Müller, in Southern Brazil, is so interesting that it appears to me well worth publishing in NATURE. His discovery of the two sexually mature forms of Termites,

[page] 309

and of their habits, is now published in Germany;1 nevertheless few Englishmen will have as yet seen the account.

In the German paper he justly compares, as far as function is concerned, the winged males and females of the one form, and the wingless males and females of the second form, with those plants which produce flowers of two forms, serving different ends, of which so excellent an account has lately appeared in NATURE by his brother, Hermann Müller.2

The facts, also, given by Fritz Müller with respect to the stingless bees of Brazil will surprise and interest entomologists.

CHARLES DARWIN

Feb. 11

 

"For some years I have been engaged in studying the natural history of our Termites, of which I have had more than a dozen living species at my disposition. The several species differ much more in their habits and in their anatomy than is generally assumed. In most species there are two sets of neuters, viz., labourers and soldiers; but in some species (Calotermes Hg.) the labourers, and in others (Anoplotermes F. M.) the soldiers, are wanting. With respect to these neuters I have come to the same conclusion as that arrived at by Mr. Bates, viz. that, differently from what we see in social Hymenoptera, they are not modified imagos (sterile females), but modified larvæ, which undergo no further metamorphosis. This accounts for the fact first observed by Lespès, that both the sexes are represented among the sterile (or so-called neuter) Termites. In some species of Calotermes the male soldiers may even externally be distinguished from the female ones. I have been able to confirm, in almost all our species, the fact already observed by Mr. Smeathman a century ago, but doubted by most subsequent writers, that in the company of the queen there lives always a king. The most interesting fact in the natural history of these curious insects is the existence of two forms of sexual individuals, in some (if not in all) of the species. Besides the winged males and females, which are produced in vast numbers, and which, leaving the termitary in large swarms, may intercross with those produced in other communities, there are wingless males and females, which never leave the termitary where they are born, and which replace the winged males or females, whenever a community does not find in due time a true king or queen. Once I found a king (of a species of Eutermes) living in company with as many as thirty-one such complemental females, as they may be called, instead of with a single legitimate queen. Termites would, no doubt, save an extraordinary amount of labour if, instead of raising annually myriads of winged males and females, almost all of which (helpless creatures as they are) perish in the time of swarming without being able to find a new home, they raised solely a few wingless males and females, which, free from danger, might remain in their native termitary; and he who does not admit the paramount importance of intercrossing, must of course wonder why this latter manner of reproduction (by wingless individuals) has not long since taken the place through, natural selection of the production of winged males and females. But the wingless individuals would of course have to pair always with their near relatives, whilst by the swarming of the winged Termites a chance is given to them for the inter-crossing of individuals not nearly related. I sent to Germany, about a year ago, a paper on this subject, but do not know whether it has yet been published.

"From Termites I have lately turned my attention to a still more interesting group of social insects, viz., our stingless honey-bees (Melipona and Trigona). Though a high authority in this matter, Mr. Frederick Smith, has lately affirmed, that "we have now acquired almost a complete history of their economy," I still believe, that almost all remains to be done in this respect. I think that even their affinities are not yet well established, and that they are by no means intermediate between hive-and humble-bees, nor so nearly allied to them, as is now generally admitted. Wasps and hive-bees have no doubt independently acquired their social habits, as well as the habit of constructing combs of hexagonal cells, and so, I think, has Melipona. The genera Apis and Melipona may even have separated from a common progenitor, before wax was used in the construction of the cells; for in hive-bees, as is well known, wax is secreted on the ventral side: in Melipona on the contrary, as I have seen, on the dorsal side of the abdomen; now it is not probable, that the secretion of wax, when once established, should have migrated from the ventral to the dorsal side or vice versâ.

"The queen of the hive-bee fixes her eggs on the bottom of the empty cells; the larvæ are fed by the labourers at first with semi-digested food, and afterwards with a mixture of pollen and honey, and only when the larvæ are full grown, the cells are closed. The Meliponæ and Trigonæ, on the contrary, fill the cells with semi-digested food before the eggs are laid, and they shut the cells immediately after the queen has dropped an egg on the food. With hive-bees the royal cells, in which the future queens have to be raised, differ in their direction from the other cells; this is not the case with Melipona and Trigona, where all the cells are vertical, with their orifices turned upward, forming horizontal (or rarely spirally ascending) combs. You know that honey is stored by our stingless bees in large, oval, irregularly clustered cells; and thus there are many more or less important differences in the structure, as well as in the economy, of Apis and Melipona.

"My brother, who is now examining carefully the external structure of our species, is surprised at the amount of variability, which the several species show in the structure of their hind legs, of their wings, &c., and not less are the differences they exhibit in their habits.

"I have hitherto observed here 14 species of Melipona and Trigona, the smallest of them scarcely exceeding 2 millimetres in length, the largest being about the size of the hive-bee. One of these species lives as a parasite within the nests of some other species. I have now, in my garden, hives of 4 of our species, in which I have observed the construction of the combs, the laying of the eggs, &c, and I hope I shall soon be able to obtain hives of some more species. Some of our species are so elegant and beautiful and so extremely interesting, that they would be a most precious acquisition for zoological gardens or large hot-houses; nor do I think that it would be very difficult to bring them to Europe and there to preserve them in a living state.

"If it be of some interest, to you I shall be glad to give you from time to time an account of what I may observe in my Melipona apiary.

"Believe me, dear Sir, &c.,

"FRITZ MÜLLER"

1 F. Müller 1873.

2 H. Müller 1873-4.


This document has been accessed 5258 times

Return to homepage

Citation: John van Wyhe, editor. 2002-. The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. (http://darwin-online.org.uk/)

File last updated 2 July, 2012