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The meaning and origin of the expression: The birds and the bees

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The birds and the bees

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Meaning

A phrase that refers to coy explanations of basic information about sex and reproduction to children.

Origin

This phrase is the name of parents' traditional responses to their children's question 'where do babies come from'?. Not that parents usually resort to describing the actual mating of avians or insects - the name is just a generalised allusion to using the habits of creatures that children may be familiar with. I suppose it's one step further on from 'the stork brings them', which was the commonplace reply in the UK when I was a lad. The euphemistic avoidance technique, which may call on references to eggs or the mysterious 'pollination', is of course just confusing to children, who are well able to cope with the real 'facts of life'. This was satirised in The Simpson's cartoon show, in the episode Homer vs. Patty and Selma, which was first broadcast in February, 1995. The episode includes a scene featuring the ten year old Bart Simpson in happy mood:

Bart: What a day, eh, Milhouse? The sun is out, birds are singing, bees are trying to have sex with them - as is my understanding...

The origin of this phrase is uncertain, which is odd for what is such a common phrase and one that appears to be of fairly recent coinage. A work which is sometimes cited as making the link between birds and bees and human sexuality is Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem Work without Hope, 1825:

All Nature seems at work. Slugs leave their lair -
The bees are stirring - birds are on the wing -
And Winter, slumbering in the open air,
Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!
And I, the while, the sole unbusy thing,
Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.

That may have prepared the ground, but it is quite a long way from any explicit use of the phrase in regard to the sex education of children.

The birds and the beesAnother source that is sometimes claimed as the origin of the phrase is the work of the American naturalist John Burroughs. In 1875, he published a set of essays titled 'Birds and Bees, Sharp Eyes and other Papers'. Burrough's aimed to present nature to children in a way that they could easily understand and appreciate. As Mary Burt said in her introduction to the essays:

"Burroughs's way of investing beasts, birds, insects, and inanimate things with human motives is very pleasing to children."

We are edging nearer to the explicit use of 'the birds and the bees' as a device for children's sex education. Nevertheless, Burroughs can only be said, like Coleridge, to be preparing the ground. His work doesn't include any reference to the phrase with regard to sex and is, after all, aimed at educating children about nature, not using nature as a metaphor for human sexual behaviour.

Another commonly cited source is Cole Porter's neat lyric to the song Let's Do It, 1928:

When the little bluebird
Who has never said a word
Starts to sing Spring
When the little bluebell
At the bottom of the dell
Starts to ring Ding dong Ding dong
When the little blue clerk
In the middle of his work
Starts a tune to the moon up above
It is nature that is all
Simply telling us to fall in love

And that's why birds do it, bees do it
Even educated fleas do it
Let's do it, let's fall in love

Porter appears to have been making deliberate, if oblique, reference to 'the birds and the bees' and it is reasonable to assume that the phrase was common currency by 1928. The first reference that I can find to birds and bees in the context of sex education is a piece which was printed in the West Virginia newspaper The Charleston Gazette, in November 1929:

You never talked about them or even recognized nice crooning little babies until they were already here. Even then the mothers pretended to be surprised. It [sex] was whispered about, but never mentioned in public. Curious and unafraid, we looked into sex and found it perfectly natural, in the flowers and the trees the birds and the bees.

So, who coined and first used 'the birds and the bees' as the generic name for euphemistic sex education? We don't know.

See other phrases that were coined in the USA.