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"The birds and the bees" is a euphemistic way of referring to sex. As in, a parent 'telling their son about the birds and the bees' would be giving them "the talk" about sex.

Growing up, I got "the talk", but no references to birds or bees. Now I find myself wondering about the origins of the phrase, and particularly if there's some canonical story that goes along with it that somehow relates avians and insectoids to the basic mechanics of sexual intercourse. I struggle to envision any plausible way in which that metaphor might work (to the best of my knowledge, the only thing a bird might do with a bee is eat it). But I always like a good story.

So is there any such thing? Or is the term just a euphemism that's even more disconnected from the act it describes than normal for English euphemisms? What are the origins, exactly?

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  • 1
    My "birds and bees" talk, also devoid of avian/insectoids references, was not about sexual intercourse as much as about the mechanics of fertilization of an egg and what each partner's role was in the process. This was done in school by a travelling sex ed teacher who incidentally carried a plastic uterus in his pocket. Ewww, right? lol! Mar 28, 2016 at 16:07
  • I don't think it had any currency before MGM's 1948 musical film Three Daring Daughters, which for some reason was renamed to The Birds and the Bees for UK release. Mar 28, 2016 at 16:27
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    I remember it coming up in an old Beverly Hillbillies episode, where the daughter was approaching that age and her suitor's parents inquired whether she'd had the "birds and the bees" talk. Jeb was confused, as he'd given her the "courtin' and sparkin'" talk, but figured, being raised in the woods, she knew all about the birds and the bees.
    – Hot Licks
    Mar 28, 2016 at 17:39

3 Answers 3

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The Phrase Finder presents some interesting assumptions, but they can't say what the exact origin is. The earlest reference to the concept of birds and bees and "sex" appears to be as early as 1825:

Samuel Taylor Coleridge: (1825)

  • 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.

John Borrow:. (1875)

  • Another 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.

Cole Porter: (1928)

  • 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.

The the following source cites a very early usage of the expression "birds and bees" from the mid 17th century:

  • USC professor Ed Finegan found earlier use of the phrase in the diary of John Evelyn, published in 1644 (but written a century prior):

    • That stupendous canopy of Corinthian brasse; it consists of 4 wreath'd columns--incircl'd with vines, on which hang little putti [cherubs], birds and bees.*
  • Finegan theorizes that Romantic era poets were inspired by this passage's placement of "birds and bees" so close to Cherubs, which represent the sexuality of humans.

  • The earliest use of the term I found in the New York Times archives that could conceivably be in the modern context of sex is from a Civil War correspondence from Washington DC, published a little over a week after the start of the conflict, in 1861:

    • It is a warm, sunny day, this 20th day of April. The air is redolent of bursting buds, and the Capital Park is jubilant with the gushing songs of the birds and the humming of the honey-bees. The Northern air that has "aggressed" upon us for a week past has been driven back by the rebellious South wind, that comes, fresh from the fair faces it has carressed, and the waving tresses through which it has wantoned, to enchant the soul with its balmy breath, and entrance the mind with its dreamy sweetness.
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I thought the phrasing the birds and the bees might have been a corruption of the birds and the beasts, as in the children's song Animal Fair and in various Biblical references, but birds and bees appears often enough in the Corpus of Historical American English to suggest that the alliterative phrasing was not uncommon to evoke a vernal or bucolic scene, as in the birds and the bees, the flowers and the trees, or blossoms, birds, and bees. It seems birds and bees have often been paired.

According to The Phrase Finder, the connection between birds, bees, and human mating may date to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 1825 poem Work WIthout Hope, but the connection is rather tenuous, the same for John Burroughs' 1875 series of essays for children about nature, Birds and Bees, Sharp Eyes, and Other Papers. American songwriter Cole Porter's 1928 hit Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love (Ella Fitzgerald cover) is also suggested. The original lyrics being too lengthy for radio play, various trimmed versions have been produced, but the signature line is

Birds do it, bees do it
Even educated fleas do it
Let's do it, let's fall in love

The Google NGram is not convincing that this was a touchstone, but it is an unreliable gauge for something that might have been considered taboo subject matter for quality publications, or might have appeared in the spoken vernacular but not found its way into print until much later.

In the specific sense not just of sexual reproduction, but of imparting its purpose and mechanics to children, COHA turns up a line narrated by a boy in Heroes by Ben Norris, published in Harper's in 1933, that may be suggestive. As I do not have access to the full text, however, that could simply be my own projection:

Some doctor had given a lecture with illustrations about the birds and bees, only Oscar said skunks and snakes were more appropriate.

The meaning is more explicit in Walk in the Sun (1944) by Harry Brown:

"The birds and the bees. Didn't your old man ever tell you about the birds and the bees?"

"Naw."

"You hear that, Friedman? Judson never heard of the birds and the bees."

Friedman was on firm ground now. "Terrible," he said. "Shall we tell him?" "Maybe we better." Rivera held out his hand. "Give us a butt, Judson, and we'll tell you all about the birds and the bees."

"I ain't got a butt," Judson said sadly.

But the first time I could find it in a quality news source is in the January 13, 1945 issue of The Billboard, in a review of the musical Central Park (which opened on Broadway as Up in Central Park):

Contrasting the villan role of Noah Beery Sr., as Boss Tweed, are the comedy antics of Betty Bruce. She milks her meager lines and situations with mugging niceties and gets her big vocal moment with a delightful comedy song, The Birds and the Bees, which gives lyrical levity to sex education.

So while the origin is uncertain, probably related to biological discussions of flower pollination and of birds mating for life and building a nest together before laying their eggs, it seems to have broken into polite conversation in the 1940s, and may have been understood as slang or a euphemism for several decades prior.

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Christine Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (1997) has this entry for "the birds and the bees":

birds and the bees, the A euphemism for sex education, especially when taught informally.[Example omitted.] Cole Porter alluded to this expression in his witty song, "Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love," (1928) when he noted that birds, bees, even educated fleas fall in love. This idiom alludes to sexual behavior in animals to avoid explicit explanation of human behavior. {Second half of 1800s}

The Wordsworth Dictionary of Idioms (1993) likewise asserts that "the birds and the bees was "A popular 19C euphemism."

On the other hand, the existence of a volume by John Burroughs titled Birds and Bees (1887)—part of a series of "Books for the Study of Nature Suitable for Use in Schools" suggests that the sex-talk connotation of "the birds and the bees" may have been less widespread in the late 1800s than Ammer and Wordsworth imply. Burroughs's work is a collection of four pieces he had published earlier: "Bird Enemies," "The Tragedy of the Nests," "An Idyl of the Honey Bee," and "The Pastoral Bees." There is nothing about mating behavior in these essays, beyond occasional references to courtship (in a suitably restrained Victorian sense involving formal anthropomorphic descriptions). A sixth-grade teacher named Mary Burt writes in an introduction to Birds and Bees:

Burroughs's way of investing beasts, birds, insects, and inanimate things with human motives is very pleasing to children. They like to trace analogies between the human and the irrational, to think of a weed as a tramp stealing rides, of Nature as a tell-tale when taken by surprise.

So we have the convenient stand-ins for human beings and human behavior in Birds and Bees—but we don't have even a wary allusion to sexual behavior. The earliest Google Books match for "the birds and the bees" used in this sense is from a pamphlet called "For Better Health in Nebraska" (1943) [combined snippets]:

A few years ago sex education meant one of two things. These included veiled hints from parents supplemented by inaccurate and crude information provided by older children, or a long-delayed explanation by parents in terms of the birds and the bees.

It seems likely that "the birds and the bees" was first recognized (perhaps as early as the 1800s) as a metaphor for "nature" or "spring" and only later (perhaps as late as World War II) became a shorthand euphemism for informal sex education. That is certainly the impression I get from this item in the Bisbee [Arizona] Daily Review (February 25, 1911):

"The Birds and the Bees."

The first budget of spring poetry was received yesterday. The fire department goat said that it was good. All along the viaduct the trees are in full bud and the whole city is becoming dotted with patches of green. Many fruit trees are in bloom in the sunny places and eftsoons the grandmothers will begin dying for the convenience of office boys and messengers who want to get into the [baseball] game on the corner lot.

Earlier examples of a similar tenor involving birds and bees as representatives of spring are not hard to find. For example, from an advertisement for Kahn & Co. Clothiers in the [Yankton, Dakota Territory] Press and Daily Dakotaian (April 23, 1889):

The spring the merry spring has come/The birds and bees are on the hum

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  • The connection with spring seems like the most plausible explanation of how the term came to be associated with mating that's been put forward. Certainly spring is the breeding season for many animals, including most birds. And also bees, I suppose. So an idiom for spring evolved into a euphemism for sex? I'd consider that plausible.
    – aroth
    Mar 29, 2016 at 1:37

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