Thursday, 5 September 2013


Another song from the aforementioned steampunk musical troupe Steam Powered Giraffe: Honeybee, a lovely piece of close harmony, of the kind whose seeming laidback effortlessness covers very tight musicianship.

By coincidence, I just had a pleasant e-mail from Garson O'Toole, author of Quote Investigator, who has kindly credited my research (and that of Bonnie Taylor-Blake) in tracing the roots of the meme to the effect that "If the Bee Disappeared Off the Face of the Earth, Man Would Only Have Four Years Left To Live" (Albert Einstein? Charles Darwin? Maurice Maeterlinck? E. O. Wilson? Apocryphal?). Despite such debunkings, the story trundles on ...
Albert Einstein famously said mankind would become extinct without them. "If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, man would have only four years to live," he predicted.
- Why we need a Plan Bee, Julie Carpenter, Express, The (London, England) - Wednesday, May 1, 2013 
... and even when authors acknowledge the lack of attribution, they still perpetuate the meme by repeating it in detail, with a minimal wrapping of provisionality. For example:
The importance of bees to the environment is clear. Often attributed to Einstein, there is some debate about who actually said: "If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man."
- Battle against pesticide-makers to save honeybees from a sticky end, Oliver Moody, Times, The (London, England) - Thursday, February 28, 2013
It seems a good scary soundbite never dies.

Anyhow, check out Quote Investigator. It's a long-running site, going back to 2010, with well-researched articles on quotes attributed to several hundred authors. Its resource recommendations are also worth checking out. I especially second Wikiquote; it still doesn't seem generally known that it differs from Wikipedia in actively encouraging original research, and that its default position is that included quotes must have demonstrable citation ("Wikiquote is a free online compendium of sourced quotations"). In this, it differs from the vast majority of online quotation sites.

- Ray


  1. As one who has twice allowed himself to be stung by the honeybee chimera, I
    went to QI and read :-)

    The first time, I received it (not knowing of the «quotation» at the time)
    from a bee scientist, and trustingly took it as his own assessment. It was you
    who rescued me from that one, when I mentioned it to you in passing...

    The second time, I used the hoary old weasely “I'm told that it was Einstein, though I don't have a source for that...” You weren't around to
    rescue me; luckily nobody called me out on it, but I realised later how lazy I'd
    bee[n] :-)

    I look back on both occasions as shameful object lessons in how bad habits
    and failures of academic rigor creep up on me. Quite apart from anything else, I
    ought (particularly with my particular background) to have immediately realised
    that there are many pollination vectors of A. mellifera isn't even, by a long chalk, the only insect servicing most of its plant species.

    [hides head in sand for embarrassment]

    Anyroad up ... thanks for the song, for Quote Investigator, and for keeping me on the straight and narrow :-)

  2. Well, as we've discussed, it *would* create serious short-term economic difficulties. It would require major reorganisation of farms to support alternative pollinators, such as preserving more hedgerows and other non-productive cultivation. It would - chiefly - hit the current commercial bee pollination system, where they cart hives around from state to state, then wonder gormlessly why the stressed bees don't thrive. There would be many luxury fruits/vegs that would become radically more expensive. But the staples - cereal crops (wind-pollinated), potatoes (tuber-propagated) etc - would do fine, as would most insect-pollinated crops, once alternative pollinators were allowed to do their job.