You’ve seen the memes. Albert Einstein is pictured with a caption that says “if honey bees disappear from earth, humans would be dead within 4 years!” I got tired of seeing this repeated and decided to dig deeper than the hyperbole-infested reports on sites like Mind Blowing Facts. I found an obscure connection to someone other than Einstein for the possible origin of the quote. But Albert Einstein gets popular credit at places like the Agronomist and Huffington Post. Even Time magazine used the quote (with the disclaimer that maybe Einstein didn’t say it), though UK’s Telegraph was more brash. If you search any variation of Einstein’s purported quote, Google will return over a million relevant links in less than a second.
There is, of course, no record that Einstein said that we’ll all die four years after the last bee sucks her last sip. He probably never drew pictures of bees on chalkboards. Nor did he write much about canaries, centipedes, or cats. Einstein was not known for his musings in ecology. (He did, however, attend Karl von Frisch’s Princeton lecture on bee language in the spring of 1949. So, he had a little exposure to honey bee science – albeit, very little.)
The Einstein bee quote is tough to disprove. Any quote is hard to disprove – just because we haven’t yet found the source, that doesn’t mean it was never said. But according to Gelf Magazine, Roni Grosz, who takes care of the Albert Einstein Archives at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, says: “There is no proof of Einstein ever having said or written it,” and Grosz “could not remember even one reference to bees in Einstein’s writings.” You can read links that analyze the unlikelihood of Einstein equating bees with coal mine canaries here, here, and here, so I’m not going to repeat all the known facts. But this is a superb example of the ‘Halo Effect’ at work: being greatly talented in one area makes some people believe that the greatness is boundless.
Einstein’s creativity and math skills were amazing and his physics was brilliant beyond reckoning for mere mortals. In my second year of university physics, I learned how to derive Einstein’s concept of the photoelectric effect. It’s beautiful and challenging and worthy the Nobel Prize which Einstein won for it. It’s math intense. People make much of the rumour that young Albert failed mathematics in elementary school, but if the story is true, it says more about the teacher than the grammar school student. (By 15, Einstein had mastered integral calculus.) Even today, we can be amazed by his fluid logic and precise reasoning. His physics was not a haphazard ramble of thought experiments, scribbles and sketches. Look at the disciplined neatness of this derivation, for example, in Einstein’s own script:
One of the reliable sources about the origin of “Einstein’s” bee quote claims that it actually began forty years after Einstein died. In 1994, in Belgium, a beekeepers’ protest erupted over tariffs and honey imports. To strengthen their case, the beekeepers invoked Einstein in their promo materials. I will speculate that those beekeepers confused Albert Einstein with another gifted European – also a Nobel Laureate and also renowned for his philosophical musings. The Belgian Symbolist Maurice Maeterlinck, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1911, was a beekeeper. The location of the beekeeper riot and Maeterlinck’s home (both in Belgium) makes the confusion feasible. Maeterlinck used his book The Life of the Bee as a platform to symbolize human civilization. I’ll paraphrase his chapter, The Progress of the Race, in which he conjures the evolutionary history of the Apinae. Part of it sounds decidedly Einsteinian:
“The Apinae has characteristics so distinct and well-marked that one is inclined to credit all its members with one common ancestor. The disciples of Darwin, Hermann Müller among others, consider a little wild bee, the Prosopis, which is to be found all over the universe, as the actual representative of the primitive bee whence all have issued that are known to us today.
“The unfortunate [primitive] Prosopis compares to the inhabitants of our modern hives as cave-dwellers to those who live in our great cities. You will probably more than once have seen her fluttering about the bushes, in a deserted corner of your garden, without realising that you were carelessly watching the venerable ancestor to whom we probably owe most of our flowers and fruits (for it is actually estimated that more than a hundred thousand varieties of plants would disappear if the bees did not visit them) and possibly even our civilisation, for in these mysteries all things intertwine.”
– Maeterlinck, 1901, The Life of the Bee, pp 388-389.
Are bees indispensable to human survival? In our myopic world-view, we can’t imagine life without almonds and cranberry sauce, but (as one example) Canada’s Inuit have lived thousands of years in the Arctic without the benefit of bees. To claim the Inuit have no civilization and to dismiss their art and culture because it’s not like ours is simply wrong. They built a society and a civilization without honey bees. Although a third of our crops may be bee-pollinated, two-thirds are not – and that includes rice, wheat, and maize. However, if the bees go missing, it would be because something has gone dreadfully wrong on our planet and that would be the end of more than just bees.
It doesn’t take an Einstein to know that the sudden extinction of the world’s 22,000 species of bees would be a grim day. One could imagine a nuclear war or an asteroid impact as the cause of such an annihilation. With a global catastrophe, humans would have much less than 4 years to think about the disappearance of the Earth’s bees. Those who use the Einstein quote are trying to remind us that the planet is fragile and our activities are threatening ecology, bees, and ultimately human life and civilization. Although Einstein never said what they say he said, the absence of evidence for Einstein giving us the quote doesn’t change the importance of the message.
Great post. There are a lot of “quotes” and facts around that get repeated so often people assume they must be true. Another beekeeping one is the idea that a third of our food is pollinated by bees.
Thanks, Emily! I hadn’t thought a lot about the “one-third of our food is pollinated by bees” expression until you mentioned it.
If we mean 1/3 of our food by weight, it’s wrong (think of all that rice, wheat, and potatoes). If we think of calorie content (sugar cane, sugar beets, corn syrup) it’s also wrong. But if we think of the Western diet and do our accounting on the basis of the number of species (or better, varietals), or if we consider that fruits and vegetables should be 2/3 of a healthy diet, then there is some validity. Fortunately, this idiom is generalized enough to be true.
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