Mark Grossman: What Einstein didn’t Say about Bees

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10 April 2014

THE SHORT ANSWER

In 1994, a quote attributed to Albert Einstein appeared in popular circulation:

“If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live.”

Einstein didn’t say that. If the great scientist ever said anything about bees, publicly, he was probably quoting someone else. The statement above was made by whoever circulated the quote in 1994 and “creatively” attributed it to Einstein.

But, then, who said it?

The prize for the closest match goes to Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck who said in his 1901 book, “The Life of the Bee”:

“[You’ve seen the bee] 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 civilization, for in these mysteries all things intertwine.”

While not packing quite the punch of the modern (apocryphal) Einstein quote, Maeterlinck is perhaps the oldest commentator to link the disappearance of bees with a dire result for humanity.

While there’s no record of Einstein ever saying anything about bees, there is a short history of bee quotations attributed to him.

The Canadian Bee Journal” included a bee quotation attributed to Einstein, in 1941, but no one has ever been able to actually link the quote to Einstein. Even the writer says that he or she is quoting from memory:

“Remove the bee from the earth and at the same stroke you remove at least one hundred thousand plants that will not survive.”

Not until 1966, did “The Irish Beekeeper” attribute a bee quotation to Einstein that mentioned the end of mankind:

“Professor Einstein, the learned scientist, once calculated that if all bees disappeared off the earth, four years later all humans would also have disappeared.”

But no one can find any source of, or reference to, the quotation above. “The Irish Beekeeper” attributed the quote to a 1965 issue of a French periodical, Abeilles et fleurs.   Unfortunately, despite a thorough search of that periodical’s contents, no such quote, attributed to Einstein or anyone else, could be found.

In his 1992 book, The Diversity of Life, Biologist Edward O. Wilson wrote:

“[I]f all [the bees] were to disappear, humanity probably could not last more than a few months.”

But this is, certainly, Wilson’s statement and not anyone else’s.

Finally, during a 1994 demonstration by beekeepers in Brussels, members of the National Union of French Apiculture handed out pamphlets attributing the following quotation to Albert Einstein:

“If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live. No more bees, no more pollination … no more men!”

Again, Al never said that.  And we may never know who did.

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