The birds and the bees
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"The birds and the bees" (sometimes expanded to "the birds, the bees and the butterflies" is an English-language idiomatic expression which refers to courtship and sexual intercourse, and is usually used in reference to teaching someone, often a young child, about sex and pregnancy. The phrase is evocative of the metaphors and euphemisms often used to avoid speaking openly and technically about the subject.
According to tradition, the birds and the bees is a metaphorical story sometimes told to children in an attempt to explain the mechanics and consequence of sexual intercourse through reference to easily observed natural events. For instance, bees carry and deposit pollen, a visible and easy-to-explain metaphor of male fertilisation. Another example, birds lay eggs, a visible and easy-to-explain version of female ovulation.
The idiom could date back as far as Shakespeare, from these lines in Act 4, Scene 6 of King Lear:
- Thou shalt not die. Die for adultery? No.
- The wren goes to't, and the small gilded fly
- Does lecher in my sight"
Here, Lear is talking to Gloucester about adultery, telling him that he must not fear being punished for it, as animals do it all the time and it is therefore a natural phenomenon. The link with the second line and the modern day idiom seems to fit, as both regard the subject of copulation, and particularly, copulation in nature. In this case, the wren represents the birds, whilst the "gilded fly" may refer to bees; which seem to be flies "gilded" with gold stripes.
Word sleuths William and Mary Morris hint that it may have been inspired by words like these from the poet Samuel Coleridge (1825): 'All nature seems at work ... The bees are stirring--birds are on the wing ... and I the while, the sole unbusy thing, not honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.'"
- "And that's why birds do it, bees do it
- Even educated fleas do it
- Let's do it, let's fall in love"
Famous uses of this phrase come from the work of John Burroughs, a naturalist who lived and worked in the Catskills Mountains. He wrote a small pamphlet called "Birds and Bees: Essays" in which he explained the workings of nature in a way that children could understand.