What Einstein didn’t say about bees – UPDATE – May 2021

https://i0.wp.com/www.impawards.com/intl/misc/2012/thumbs/sq_more_than_honey.jpg

It’s more than 6 years (!) since I wrote this post. Over that period I’ve been asked many times about the Einstein bee quote and I’ve always replied that it’s made up, and that further more, Einstein was a physicist: he had no interest in bees!

Turns out, that’s not quite correct. There’s still no evidence that Einstein stated the infamous bee quote; however he does seem to have had an interest in bees. A newly-discovered letter from the great man mentions his admiration of the work of Karl von Frisch, whose research on the honey bee ‘waggle dance’ earned him a Nobel Prize. There’s a couple of news stories online about this: here’s one from Cosmos, and another from The Conversation. The original paper discussing the letter, by Adrian Dyer and colleagues, can be viewed here.

So I will have to moderate my response in the future, but it doesn’t change the big picture: Einstein never said it!

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In the 100th anniversary year since Albert Einstein published the paper on his General Theory of Relativity, it’s saddening to think that one of the things that he will be best remembered for is something he did not say.  There are various versions of it, but they all amount to the same thing:

“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”

This statement could be dissected and disproved in numerous ways:  for example, there’s over 20,000 species of bees, so what is “the bee”?  Plus most of our crops are not bee (or even insect) pollinated, they are wind pollinated grasses such as wheat and rice.  Etc. etc.

But what is particularly annoying about it is – EINSTEIN NEVER SAID IT!  As far as anyone is aware he had no interest in bees whatsoever and the original source was a Canadian beekeepers’ journal in the 1940s.

It’s even more annoying that, despite the fact that we’ve known the statement is both factually incorrect and not by the great man, documentary film makers and journalists are STILL using it to support their work.  The latest example I’ve seen is this documentary, the poster of which is shown above.

Rant over: back to reading paperwork for a meeting this afternoon.

UPDATE:  I’d forgotten that Tom Breeze at University of Reading posted a fuller account of Einstein’s (non) quote last year – here’s the link.

25 thoughts on “What Einstein didn’t say about bees – UPDATE – May 2021

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      It’s really interesting that you say that! When I first saw the image my immediate response was: “That’s a syrphid!” Then I looked more closely and the head is clearly a bee, and the wing venation is correct as far as I can tell. So I think it’s just the angle that the photo is taken from. Mind you, there are precedents for designers getting things spectacularly wrong… http://www.amazon.co.uk/Bees-World-Christopher-OToole/dp/0816057125/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1426080624&sr=1-3&keywords=bees+of+the+world

      Reply
      1. standingoutinmyfield

        I imagine he was! I’ve heard the editor doesn’t check in with the author when picking the cover image.

        Oh by the way, we were discussing your 2014 paper in Science in lab meeting yesterday and we were wondering if by extinctions you were referring to global extinctions of the species in your study, or local extirpations in the UK?

      2. jeffollerton Post author

        It depends on the editor and publisher!

        It’s extirpations in the UK, which we do say somewhere, possibly the supplementary materials. We discussed whether to use “extinctions” or “extirpations” and decided on the former as these were multiple populations from a single large island plus the rest of the archipelago.

  1. zekethegardener

    Everyone needs a good rant now & then! Laying considerations about the author and the validity of the statement aside, I must say that I find the possibility of the ultimate loss honey bees disturbing. They are fascinating creatures, serve a valid purpose, and pose no threat to our existence.

    Reply
    1. jeffollerton Post author

      I absolutely agree Zeke. However globally the number of hives (and therefore bees) has increased over time, not gone down. It’s only in certain parts of the world that there has been a decline.

      Reply
    2. Clem

      One quibble – there is the threat posed to those allergic to bee stings. And the significance of the threat comes back to whether one is allergic or not. But I will agree in the larger sense. Bees are more than worth the trouble.

      Reply
      1. Emily Scott

        Luckily only a tiny percentage of the population is allergic enough that a bee sting could potentially kill them. I know one such person who still keeps bees.

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