Unraveling the Mystery: The Surprising Origins of ‘The Birds and The Bees’

Unraveling the Mystery: The Surprising Origins of 'The Birds and The Bees'

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For many parents (and awkward pre-teens), the conversation about the birds and the bees is a dreaded one. Having ‘the talk’ is often easier when we don’t have to use language that feels explicit or uncomfortable so it’s easy to see why we have a variety of terms. But who came up with the idea of the birds and the bees and why is it called the birds and the bees?

The phrase comes from a Cole Porter song from 1928. There is a line in the song that says;

‘And that’s why birds do it, bees do it, and even educated fleas do it.’

By ‘it’ the singer was quite obviously referring to sex but with these lyrics in mind, the term ‘the birds and the bees’ soon became a common way of explaining human reproduction to younger children.

I find language fascinating, especially when it relates to bees. And while the term was originally inspired by the 1928 song, there’s still a lot more to learn about it. Come with me as I take a more detailed look.

What Is ‘The Birds And The Bees’?

The ‘birds and the bees’ is a way of explaining reproduction to children without having to use language that may be considered embarrassing or uncomfortable. So, for decades, parents have used euphemisms to make having this conversation easier.

The birds and the bees is a story that is told to children to give them a general idea of where babies come from. While there are different variations on how the story may be told, it’s usually to do with bees pollinating flowers (male fertilization) and birds laying eggs (human female ovulation.)

I was fortunate enough to not have this vague explanation from my parents because it’s confusing to say the least. There’s even one version of the story where a bird lays an egg after the bee stings it; I’m not sure that, with that explanation, I’d ever have successfully had children of my own!

Birds and Bees do not mate together, but this has been used to describe reproduction to children throughout generations of parenting

So, Where Did The Saying Come From?

The most recent and obvious explanation for the term the birds and the bees comes from the 1928 Cole Porter song that I referred to earlier in this post. However, there are earlier examples that some people believe the saying should be credited to.

For example, in an 1825 poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, called Work Without Hope, there is a reference to birds and bees. However, it’s widely disputed that this is where the saying came from as the reference is so vague that one could hardly attribute it to meaning sex.

Skip forward to 1875 and we find a batch of essays written by John Burroughs called Birds and bees, sharp eyes and other papers. The essays were written as a way of explaining nature to children in the most easy-to-understand manner. However, again, it’s disputed that this was the inspiration for the birds and the bees since there is no reference to reproduction.

The final potential inspiration comes from The Story Of Life written by Emma Frances Angell Drake in 1893; again, long before the release of the Cole Porter song. In this piece, the author talks about how she explained human reproduction to her children by talking about eggs in a nest, bees collecting nectar, and pollination.

Is ‘The Birds And The Bees’ Talk Relevant In Modern Society?

Go back a century when the Cole Porter song was released and you’d have found that any mention of sex or reproduction in popular culture was pretty shocking. So using euphemisms to explain these things to children was much more common.

However, look at what we are all exposed to in modern culture. I’m not saying that the sexualisation of pretty much everything is a good or a bad thing, but there’s no denying it is there. This means that young people are having access to and being exposed to things that the children of the 1920s would have been abhorred by.

So, this poses the question of whether the birds and the bees really have a place in society anymore or whether it’s just an outdated and prudish way of explaining something that’s as natural as eating or drinking.

I guess that whether you use the birds and the bees story is largely a personal choice. But it does leave me wondering if there will be a phrase that’s coined in modern times that someone a hundred years down the line will be writing about.

Final Thoughts

Have you ever wondered why it’s called the birds and the bees? There are lots of potential explanations but it seems that the term became popular after the release of a Cole Porter song in the late 1920s. Since then, the expression has been used in the form of a story to explain the notion of human reproduction to children. Is it effective? I think that’s out of my remit but it’s certainly not a phrase that’s going out of style any time soon.