Q: When did “the birds and the bees” become a euphemism for sex?
A: The use of the expression as a euphemism for the basic facts about sex, as told to children, showed up in print in the first half of the 20th century, but it was undoubtedly used in speech before it appeared in writing.
The earliest written example we’ve seen for “the birds and the bees” used this way is from a Feb. 12, 1940, Associated Press article that appeared the next day in various newspapers around the country.
Here’s the headline in the Feb. 13, 1940, issue of the San Bernardino County (CA) Sun: “Objection to Pictures of Nudes Irks Girl, 12 / Child Suggests That He Learn About Birds and Bees Before Voicing Disapproval.”
In the AP article, a man says schoolchildren shouldn’t be allowed to see two Thomas Hart Benton nudes at a museum. A girl responds that “there is no harm in looking at art exhibitions” and “if you know about the birds and the bees you wouldn’t want to hide the pictures.”
The editors of the San Bernardino newspaper wouldn’t have used “Birds and Bees” in the headline unless the usage was already familiar to readers in the sex-education sense.
A somewhat earlier newspaper example (from the April 29, 1939, issue of the Argus in Melbourne, Australia) uses “the birds and the bees” to mean lovers in nature. A movie reviewer complains about the scarcity of romantic films coming out of Hollywood, then adds:
“I am not suggesting that Hollywood is plastered with posters reading ‘Down With Love.’ Nor do I even hint that it should be given back to the birds and the bees and the flowers and the few Viennese remaining in old Vienna.”
Of course writers have linked birds and bees for centuries as symbols of nature, and noted the care in which birds rear their young.
In a 1675 religious treatise, for example, the Anglican priest John Smith says man should imitate the “well timed and orderly actions of birds and bees,” especially the ingenuity of birds “in making their nests” and in the “parental care of their young.”
(The treatise is entitled Christian Religion’s Appeal From the Groundless Prejudices of the Sceptick to the Bar of Common Reason. Smith was rector of St. Mary at the Wall Church in Colchester, England.)
And here’s a 19th-century example from “Nature,” by the Scottish poet Allan Cunningham:
“Untrodden flowers and unpruned trees / Gladden’d with songs of birds and bees.” (The poem was first published in the Edinburgh Literary Journal on Dec. 27, 1828, and was widely reprinted in the US.)
A more recent, suggestive example is from “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love,” a song that Cole Porter wrote for the 1928 musical Paris: “Birds do it, bees do it, / Even educated fleas do it.”
Porter changed the original wording (“Chinks do it, Japs do it, / Up in Lapland, little Lapps do it”), when told that it was offensive, Philip H. Herbst writes in The Color of Words: An Encyclopedic Dictionary of Ethnic Bias in the United States (1997).
All the early recordings we’ve heard, including those by Rudy Vallée (1928), Bing Crosby (1929), Mary Martin (1941), and Billie Holiday (1941), use the original lyrics. The Yale Book of Quotations, edited by Fred R. Shapiro, dates the new version at 1954.