I am obsessed with my garden at the moment. This is my second year as a homeowner and I am starting to see the payoff from the work I put in last summer. The small plants I put in in June are exploding into new gorgeous blooms, and it fills my heart with such joy.
I’m always standing in my windows looking out at the garden taking in the new spring colours along with the activity from the flock of birds that live in my hedges, and the various insects that come to visit.
(Hopefully, my back neighbours don’t think that I’m a weirdo always looking into their homes!)
While drinking my tea and watching the proverbial birds and the bees about their business I started to wonder… Why do we say “the birds and the bees?
What are “the birds and the bees”?
“The birds and the bees” is a euphemism for the sex talk given to younger children. Traditionally the imagery of birds laying eggs (to stand in for female ovulation), and bees pollinating plants (to stand in for the male sperm) are used to help explain reproduction in nature – crucially, without awkward adults having to get too technical.
Thankfully I was never given this version of the sex talk as a child; I have no memory of getting “the talk”… But then I am also a farmer’s daughter, so animals having babies was just a part of life already for me! I am pretty sure it would have raised far more questions than it answered if this was the explanation I had been given!
Where did the phrase “the birds and the bees” come from?
According to an LA Times article, USC Professor Ed Finegan gives at least two writers credit as the inspiration. John Evelyn’s Diary (published in 1818, though written in 1644) describes the interior of St Peter’s in Rome with –
That stupendous canopy of Corinthian brasse which heretofore was brought from the Pantheon ; it consists of 4 wreath’d columns partly channel’d and incircl’d with vines, on which hang little puti, birds and bees
The imagery of the cherubs with the birds and bees represents human sexuality and may have been some inspiration for the Romantic poets when it was published, including Samuel Coleridge Taylor. His verses in “Work Without Home” (1825) describe nature getting busy as he looks on with lonely longing:
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.
Another author credited with popularising the phrase is John Burroughs with his 1875 collection of essays ‘Birds and Bees, Sharp Eyes and Other Papers.’ These essays were to explain nature to children, but he doesn’t even discuss how reproduction works in nature, never mind humans.
At least by the 1920s, this phrase was in popular use. Cole Porter in his 1928 song ‘Let’s Do It’ used the lyrics
And that’s why birds do it, bees do it
Even educated fleas do it
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love
And from this time the phrase can be found in use in newspapers with the same meaning that we understand it today.
Though, the ways that the birds and the bees do it… Is not quite how we, as humans, do it. I still had questions – what is the truth behind the birds and the bees? How far off the mark is the sex talk?
How do birds reproduce?
To begin with, most birds do not even have penises (some do, like waterfowl and ostriches… I thought better of googling for “duck penis” .. I’ll leave that to you if you’re interested!).
Instead, both male and female birds have a cloaca which they use for toilet business as well as for making babies (it took me 34 years to understand why the chicken eggs would sometimes have a lot of poop on them!).
When a mating pair has been formed the two birds will share a “cloacal kiss.”
The male will climb on top of the female and rub their cloacas together which allows the sperm to be transferred. The whole thing only takes a few seconds, and honestly sounds quite sweet! You can watch this short video I found on Youtube of pair of finches.
Bees on the other hand are quite a different story.
How do bees reproduce?
I’m going to talk about two types of bees that we might see in the UK, but it is worth noting other species reproduce in different ways (scientists have even found a species where the females can reproduce asexually!).
I think that we all at least have the knowledge that Honeybees live in colonies, in a nest called a hive, and that they have a Queen.
There are three categories of bees in a colony:
- Worker bees – these are female bees who have a reproductive system that includes ovaries, however, this usually stays dormant and they never produce any eggs. If for some reason the colony doesn’t have a queen then the workers may lay eggs but these will be unfertilised and only produce male bees.
- Drone bees – these are the male bees, they have little bee penises tucked up inside their bodies.
- Queen bee – a single female bee who is responsible for populating and growing the hive. She does have a set of working ovaries and she’ll lay a couple of hundred thousand eggs in her lifetime! (Yikes)
How is the Queen bee chosen?
The bees will set aside some of the female larvae to become potential queens and they get fed with special food (Royal Jelly) which helps them develop pheromones and hormones (scientists are still figuring this out exactly how this works). These special pheromones and hormones will suppress the reproductive systems of the other female bees (making them the workers).
So how do Honeybees have sex?
Honeybees get pretty freaky!
When it is time for a mating session the drones will fly out to a “congregation area” which will be about 20 feet up from the ground. There may be multiple of these within a couple of miles and drones from different hives will hop over to the different ones to make sure they mix genes.
Once the queen arrives the drones will begin a competitive chase for her attention.
Each pairing with the queen will only last a few seconds but the whole session could last 20 to 30 minutes. A virgin queen will do some training to get her wings into shape and ready for this marathon – you can understand why she needs the good food!
Here is a short clip of the mating flight I found on YouTube.
What happens after the Honeybee mating flight?
The queen will go on a few of these mating flights and pair with 40-50 drones, collecting about 100 million sperm! She’ll use some of this right away to fertilise her eggs, and then store the rest for later in a special organ called the spermathecal.
She’ll push the eggs out of her little bee vagina and on the way, it’ll press by the spermathecal duct and may be fertilised. She can actually choose which eggs to fertilise – the unfertilised ones will be male and the fertilised ones female.
Once she has run out of sperm, or her egg production slows for any reason, the colony will begin the process of raising a new queen to replace her. When they decide to do this they will smother the old queen to death!
As for the drones… Well, it’s the end of the road I’m afraid.
Drones have two options – they get kicked out of the nest because they failed to mate, and they die.
Or, they mate with the Queen. This mating process for the male involves his reproductive tract turning inside out (to make his little penis) and this is then torn off during the act of mating… and then he dies!
Isn’t nature beautiful?
Right, so what about Bumblebees?
These are the little guys I see around my garden enjoying my plants. You know the cute little, fuzzy fat ones. So, these bees are a little less kinky!
The Bumblebee Queen
Bumblebees of course also have a Queen. She’ll come out of hibernation in spring to hunt out some food and start building a new nest.
Unlike the Honeybees who stay living in the same hive for a few years, the Bumblebees will build a new nest every year and this is usually in the ground.
With some saved-up sperm from last year, the Queen will lay about 6 eggs to produce some worker bees. Like the Honeybee the female workers are infertile due to the pheromones the Queen emits.
Then the Queen has to settle into the nest to start popping out more workers and they take over the job of collecting the pollen and nectar, and finishing building up the nest.
It is actually only the female bees that have stingers – turns out that the male bees, the drones, don’t have stingers. These dudes don’t hatch until we’re into mid-Summer and once they do they stuff their faces with honey, and then they fly off on their own until it is time to mate with a queen.
A new queen will hatch shortly after this and do her own foraging to fuel up for her mating flight.
How do Bumblebees have sex?
The male Bumblebee will begin flying around dropping pheromones as lures to attract the queen. When she lands she’ll extend her stinger so he can mount with this little bee penis.
It takes about 2 minutes to transfer the sperm but they have to hang around at least 10 minutes longer for a “genital plug” mixture, that the male also deposits, to harden. This keeps his sperm inside and prevents any other males from depositing their sperm.
If you want to see what this looks like I’ve popped in another short YouTube clip (not sure why this guy has them on his finger! Also, bonus kitty nose at the end!)
And after the deed is done he’ll die. And she’ll go and find a new nest site to hibernate for the winter. Her old colony will die off as the cold comes.
I think Bumble Bees were maybe more what Coleridge and Cole Porter were picturing, rather than a Honey Bee orgy in the sky… But who knows!
So what is pollination and what are the bees doing to the plants?
As we learned above the bees are about collecting nectar and pollen to build colonies and fuel up for their reproductive adventures. By doing this they are also helping plants with pollination.
The bee’s role is super simple. The bee will land on the plant and start sucking up the nectar to store in its “honey stomach.” Pollen, which is produced by the male part of the plant, will get stuck to the hairs on its body and its feet. Then when the bee moves on and lands on another flower some of the pollen will be transferred to the female part of the plant, thereby fertilizing it.
With the flower fertilized it can grow fruit and seeds.
This is why bees are so important, and without them, we’d have a lot less food!
I hope you learned something new from reading today, if you enjoyed this article I’d love it if you shared it with your friends! Or, if you received the “birds and the bees” talk I would love to hear about it in the comments!
- How Honeybees Reproduce – PerfectBee PerfectBee LL, 2022
- How Do Bees Reproduce? | A Factual Overview
- Kathleen Kelleher, Los Angeles Times, ” Birds Do It, Bees Do It, but Why’d We Say That“. 2000.
- Gary Martin, Phrase Finder “The birds and the bees”, Phrases.org.uk
- Kim Ann Zimmermann. “The birds and the bees.” Meaning and origin of the phrase, Live Science: Scientific News, Articles and Current Events, February 28, 2022
- The Lifecycle Of A Queen Bumble Bee
- Bumblebee mating, death and hibernation; Stage 4 in the lifecycle of a bumblebee colony
- Bird Reproduction – Avian Report · June 2, 2021
- Melissa Mayntz, How Do Birds Mate – Courtship and Sex in Birds 2021
- Joanna Klein. Scientists Find Genes That Let These Bees Reproduce Without Males – The New York Times. 10 June 2016