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?

einsteinbee03Dear Quote Investigator: A dramatic quotation about the dangers of environmental upheaval is attributed to the brilliant physicist Albert Einstein. Here are two versions:

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.

If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live

Some commentators are skeptical about this ascription. Could you examine this expression?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Einstein ever made a remark of this type about bees. Alice Calaprice, the editor of the important collection “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein”, placed the saying in the “Probably Not by Einstein” section of her reference. 1

The earliest evidence known to QI of a connection between Einstein and disastrous environmental scenarios caused by the disappearance of bees was published in the “Canadian Bee Journal” in 1941: 2

If I remember well, it was Einstein who said: “Remove the bee from the earth and at the same stroke you remove at least one hundred thousand plants that will not survive.”

QI has located no supporting evidence that Einstein made the remark above. Instead, QI has determined that a statement of this type was made by the major literary figure Maurice Maeterlinck in his work “The Life of the Bee” in 1901. The saying was widely disseminated in the decades afterwards. Details are given further below.

In 1966 “The Irish Beekeeper” published a comment ascribed to Einstein that presented the grim four year time limit for humanity. The journal cited a 1965 issue of a French periodical for beekeepers called “Abeilles et Fleurs” for justification of the attribution. This is the earliest evidence known to QI of a connection between Einstein who died in 1955 and the dire time limit: 3

Professor Einstein, the learned scientist, once calculated that if all bees disappeared off the earth, four years later all humans would also have disappeared.
Abeilles et fleurs, June, 1965.

Below is a selected chronological sequence of citations that attempt to roughly outline the evolution of this expression and its conceptual formation. Because this task is difficult and the available information is fragmentary this entry is lengthy. QI is indebted to the pioneering research of Bonnie Taylor-Blake and Ray Girvan who explored this topic and located many important citations including the two given previously.

In 1859 the landmark scientific treatise “On the Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin was published, and it included a section discussing a complex ecological web of interactions between cats, mice, humble-bees, heartsease and red clover. Humble-bees are now referred to as bumblebees, and Darwin pointed out that some important plant species would face extinction if the bumblebee were to disappear: 4

Hence, we may infer as highly probable that if the whole genus of humble-bees became extinct or very rare in England, the heartsease and red clover would become very rare, or wholly disappear.

In 1887 the “British Bee Journal” reprinted an article from the “American Bee Journal” that presented a cascade of ecological interactions showing that the population of cattle was dependent on population of cats. The chain also showed that cattle were dependent on bumblebees. Most of the living things mentioned in this passage and the style of reasoning were based on Darwin’s analysis: 5

The safety of England depends on the number of cats she keeps. He proves his proposition thus: Without the aid of bumble-bees the red clover could not be fertilised. Bumble-bees make their nests on the ground, where they are the prey of mice. Cats destroy the mice and give the bees a chance to live. Hence he reasons, no cats, many mice; many mice, no bumble-bees; no bees, no clover; no clover, no cattle; no cattle, no beef; and without beef where would the Englishman be?—Prof. W. W. Cooke—(American Bee Journal.)

In 1901 the prominent Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck published “The Life of the Bee”, and he helped to popularize the idea that the bee was a vital ecological linchpin. The work was originally written in French and was translated into English by Alfred Sutro. Maeterlinck’s reputation grew when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1911. Maeterlinck provocatively suggested that we owed our civilization to the bee, and some readers may have concluded that the extinction of the bee would lead to the collapse of civilization: 6 7

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.

The assertion that 100,000 varieties of plants were dependent on the ministrations of the bee for continued existence was spellbinding, and it has been regularly repeated for more than a hundred years

In 1906 the French journal “Les Abeilles & Les Fruits” printed a statement that it ascribed to Charles Darwin about the importance of bees to mankind. Here is the French version: 8

…mais répétons-leur à cor et à cri le grand enseignement de Darwin: “La vie de l’homme serait rendue extrêmement difficile si l’abeille venait à disparaître.”

Here is an English translation by Ray Girvan: 9

…but we repeat to them loudly the great teaching of Darwin: “The life of man would be made extremely difficult if the bee disappeared.”

In 1907 a report from the New York State Department of Agriculture discussed experiments that indicated many crops were dependent on bees for productive pollination, e.g., apple, cherry, pear, strawberry, raspberry, red clover, white clover, melon, squash, pumpkin, and cucumber. In a typical experiment researchers placed netting around some branches of an apple tree to exclude bees and then determined that the number of blossoms was dramatically reduced: 10

I have not attempted to name all the agricultural products benefited through insect agency in pollination but have named a few important and common products as examples. “It is estimated that more than a hundred thousand varieties of plants would disappear, if bees could not visit them”; add to these those plants that do not wholly depend upon insect agency in fertilization but whose productiveness is increased by such visitation, consider if you can the countless ages, past and future, these plants have added, and will continue to add to the earth’s productiveness, and you can but slightly comprehend the importance of the honey-bee in agriculture.

In 1908 the textbook “Animal Life” spoke of the deep dependence of agriculture and human civilization on bees: 11

The history of flowers would almost be a blank, but for the Prosopis and her vast following; a hundred thousand varieties would disappear if the bees did not visit them; and if we reflect how much human civilisation in its critical pastoral and tribal stages has depended on agriculture we realise how greatly we are indebted to these honey-suckers and pollen gatherers.

In 1914 a Denver, Colorado newspaper repeated the adage that “hundred thousand varieties of plants” were dependent on bees: 12

But that little wild bee, half starved, ignorant, is the ancestor of all the civilized bees. And, what is more important, as the scientists point out, it is probably to her that we owe nearly all of our flowers and fruit. A hundred thousand varieties of plants would disappear from the earth if the bees did not visit them, carrying the pollen.

In 1921 a San Jose, California newspaper reiterated the adage about plants and bees: 13

It is interesting to know it has been accurately estimated, that more than 100,000 varieties of our plants would disappear if they were not visited by the bees. Our blossoms-covered valley owes a large part of its wonderful fruition, to the little people of the hive.

In 1929 a writer in the Los Angeles Times newspaper recalled Maeterlinck’s work “The Life of the Bee”, but surprisingly the journalist stated 100 plants would disappear instead of 100,000: 14

Maeterlinck says that the bees everywhere are becoming “civilized.” They prefer man-made hives to wild tree trunks. This is good for man and also for his horticulture, for without bees to perform the important office of pollinization hundreds of varieties of plants would disappear.

In 1934 a newspaper in Boston, Massachusetts mentioned the interlocking dependencies of plants and animals: 15

Because only plants can manufacture food, and because all animals must live on either plants or animals that live on plants, the law has been stated that “without plants, animals cannot exist.” Likewise some plants would disappear if animals were removed, for many flowers depend on nectar-seeking insects to pollenate the flowers—perpetuate the species.

In 1939 the columnist Ernest A. Fortin writing in the “Canadian Bee Journal” referred to the dependence of “one hundred thousand plants” on the bee. He attributed this claim to “one of the most celebrated naturalists the world has ever produced”. Indeed, this assertion about the bee has sometimes been ascribed to famed naturalist Charles Darwin though QI has found no supporting evidence for this linkage. Oddly, Fortin was not referring to Darwin as shown in the important 1941 citation given further below. In this 1939 passage the naturalist was unnamed: 16

The bee has a wider range of utility and is, in reality, one of the main keystones of agriculture. One of the most celebrated naturalists the world has ever produced once declared this: Suppress the bee from the earth, and by so doing you will suppress at least one hundred thousand plants that will not survive. Remember that the milk and cattle industry are largely dependent on the bee for the fertilization of the clovers. How many crops of different fruits are dependent on the bee for success? The bee is one of the main links of that wonderful chain forged by nature, and wherever that link is broken, there is bound to be trouble somewhere.

In 1941 Ernest A. Fortin wrote on this subject again in the “Canadian Bee Journal”. Fortin assigned the remark about plants and bees to Albert Einstein, and this is the earliest known connection between Einstein and the topic of ecological damage caused by bee extinction. Note that this quotation does not directly foretell the speedy doom of mankind: 17

Yes, every kind of animal or insect is a link in the endless chain of nature and, if a link is removed, it is a long time before the chain serves again its full purpose. If I remember well, it was Einstein who said: “Remove the bee from the earth and at the same stroke you remove at least one hundred thousand plants that will not survive.”

In 1951 a group of schoolchildren wrote to Einstein and asked whether there “would be living things on the earth if the sun burnt out,” and he replied: 18

Without sunlight there is: no wheat, no bread, no grass, no cattle, no meat, no milk, and everything would be frozen. No LIFE.

Note this question and reply did not concern bees; however, Einstein’s letter did include a cascade of events that was reminiscent of some passages about bee extinction. Einstein had already been linked by 1941 to a quote about bee loss. So, it is not clear whether this interesting letter contributed further to misattributions.

In 1962 the viewer of an educational film titled “City of Bees” commented on the danger to mankind if the bee disappeared: 19

If some catastrophe destroyed all the bees on our planet, some 100,000 species of plants would disappear and man would be hard put to eke out a living.

In 1966 “The Irish Beekeeper” printed a remark attributed to Einstein that gave a time limit for mankind. This important citation acknowledged the French periodical “Abeilles et Fleurs” for the quotation. Currently, this is the earliest piece of evidence known to QI containing a time limit: 20

Professor Einstein, the learned scientist, once calculated that if all bees disappeared off the earth, four years later all humans would also have disappeared.
Abeilles et fleurs, June, 1965.

In 1971 a syndicated humor column called “The Lighter Side” discussed the honeybee: 21

“In my Earth Day remarks, I observed that America had created the most complex, highly advanced technology in history. Yet we are almost totally dependent on a measly little flying insect.

“If anything happened to the honeybee, many of our most important plants would disappear and our entire civilization likely would collapse.

The renowned biologist Edward O. Wilson writing in his 1992 book “The Diversity of Life” envisioned an apocalyptic scenario in which humans would face doom in only months: 22

So important are insects and other land-dwelling arthropods that if all were to disappear, humanity probably could not last more than a few months. Most of the amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals would crash to extinction about the same time. Next would go the bulk of the flowering plants and with them the physical structure of most forests and other terrestrial habitats of the world.

The land surface would literally rot. As dead vegetation piled up and dried out, closing the channels of the nutrient cycles, other complex forms of vegetation would die off, and with them all but a few remnants of the land vertebrates.

During a 1994 demonstration by beekeepers in Brussels, pamphlets with the saying credited to Einstein were disseminated: 23

Crops such as apples, pears, beans and oilseeds need bees for pollination. British beekeepers estimate that 85 per cent of Europe’s wildflowers are pollinated by bees and the death of the flowers could have a major impact on wildlife. “It’s going to be a chain reaction,” said Mr Potter.

A pamphlet distributed by the National Union of French Apiculture quoted 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!”

In conclusion, QI has not located any support for attributing a doom-laden statement about bees to Albert Einstein. The first evidence known to QI linking Einstein to an ill-fated bee-less world appeared in 1941. The writer Ernest A. Fortin probably confused Charles Darwin, Maurice Maeterlinck, and Albert Einstein. QI does not believe that Fortin’s ascription was deliberately deceptive.

The quotation with a four year deadline for humanity is of uncertain origin. It appears that the earliest known version was printed in a French publication for beekeepers in 1965.

(Special thanks to Bonnie Taylor-Blake for her foundational work on this topic, and to Ray Girvan for his indispensable research. Of course, any errors in this post are the responsibility of QI. Great thanks to Terry Garey and Dennis Lien for obtaining scans of the 1939 and 1941 citations in the Canadian Bee Journal. Great thanks to John McChesney-Young for obtaining scans of the 1966 citation in The Irish Beekeeper. Lastly, many thanks to Mahadevan who requested the exploration of this quotation.)

Notes:

  1. 2010, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Edited by Alice Calaprice, Section: Probably Not by Einstein, Page 479, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1941 January, Canadian Bee Journal, Volume 49, Number 1, Comments From Quebec by Ernest A. Fortin, Start Page 12, Quote Page 13, Publisher: J. and M. Atkinson, St. Catharines, Ontario. (Verified with scans; Great thanks to Terry Garey and Dennis Lien and the University of Minnesota library system)
  3. 1966 April, The Irish Beekeeper: An Beachaire, Volume 20, Number 4, Section: News From Abroad by Mrs. G. V. Poulton, Which Queens Are The Best? Quote Page 74, Column 2, Published by The Federation of Irish Beekeeping Associations. (Verified with scans; thanks to John McChesney-Young and the University of California, Berkeley library system)
  4. 1861, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection by Charles Darwin, (Third Edition with Additions and Corrections; First edition 1959), Quote Page 77, John Murray, London. (Google Books full view) link
  5. 1887 June 16, British Bee Journal, Volume 15, How and Why Plants Produce Honey (A Paper read at the Vermont Convention) by W. W. Cooke (American Bee Journal), Start Page 254, Quote Page 255, Column 1, Published by John Huckle, Hertfordshire and Kent and Co., London. (Google Books full view) link
  6. 1901, The Life of the Bee by Maurice Maeterlinck, Translated from French to English by Alfred Sutro, Quote Page 317 and 318, Published by George Allen, Ruskin House, London. (HathiTrust) link link
  7. 1905 (1901 copyright), The Life of the Bee by Maurice Maeterlinck, Translated from French to English by Alfred Sutro, Quote Page 389, Published by Dodd, Mead and Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  8. 1906 Juillet (July), Les Abeilles & Les Fruits, “Concours National de Nancy: Congrès Apicole de la Région de L’est: Exposition d’Apiculture” by Parizot, Start Page 1088, Quote Page 1090 and 1091, Socíeté Haut-Marnaise d’Apiculture, France. (Google Books full view) link
  9. Website: JSBlog – Journal of a Southern Bookreader, Blog author: Ray Girvan, Article title: That bee story again, Date on website: May 13, 2010, Website description: “… on varied topics inspired by books, music, landscape, and East Devon and the Isle of Wight.” (Accessed jsbookreader.blogspot.com on August 26, 2013) link
  10. 1907, Report of Director of Farmer’s Institutes and Normal Institutes For the Year 1906, (Report from Department of Agriculture of State of New York: Transmitted to the Legislature on January 14, 1907), “The Honey-Bee (Apis Mellifera) and Its Relation to Agriculture” by W. F. Marks, Start Page 295, Quote Page 301, J. B. Lyon Company, State Printers, Albany, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  11. 1908, Animal Life by Frederick William Gamble (Frederick William Gamble), Quote Page 281 and 282, Smith, Elder, & Co., London. (Google Books full view) link
  12. 1914 May 24, Denver Post, Section: Magazine, Worker and Drones, GNB Page 50, Column 1, Denver, Colorado. (GenealogyBank)
  13. 1921 March 8, The News (Evening News), Beehive Secrets Are Told In Sunny Blossom-land by Edith Daley, Quote Page 4, Column 3, San Jose, California. (Google News Archive)
  14. 1929 June 21, Los Angeles Times, Bees in Trees by Millard Bailey, Quote Page A4, Column 6, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  15. 1934 July 19, Christian Science Monitor, Spectroscopists Finding Answers To Old Problems Quote Page 5, Column 3, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)
  16. 1939 June, Canadian Bee Journal, Volume 47, Number 6, Comments From Quebec by Ernest A. Fortin, Start Page 178, Quote Page 178, Column 1 and 2, Publisher: J. and M. Atkinson, St. Catharines, Ontario. (Verified with scans; Great thanks to Terry Garey and Dennis Lien and the University of Minnesota library system)
  17. 1941 January, Canadian Bee Journal, Volume 49, Number 1, Comments From Quebec by Ernest A. Fortin, Start Page 12, Quote Page 13, Publisher: J. and M. Atkinson, St. Catharines, Ontario. (Verified with scans; Great thanks to Terry Garey and Dennis Lien and the University of Minnesota library system)
  18. Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein’s Letters to and from Children, Edited by Alice Calaprice, (Letter from Six Little Scientists, Morgan City, Louisiana, Reply from Einstein dated December 12, 1951), Page 185 to 187, Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York.
  19. 1962 December 4, Lodi News-Sentinel, Bees Have A Language: Startling Discoveries Made In New Film, ‘City Of Bees’, Quote Page 6, Column 1, Lodi, California. (Google News Archive)
  20. 1966 April, The Irish Beekeeper: An Beachaire, Volume 20, Number 4, Section: News From Abroad by Mrs. G. V. Poulton, Which Queens Are The Best? Quote Page 74, Column 2, Published by The Federation of Irish Beekeeping Associations. (Verified with scans; thanks to John McChesney-Young and the University of California, Berkeley library system)
  21. 1971 April 20, Williamson Daily News, “The Lighter Side: Is ‘Almost Certain’ FBI Had His Every Move Bugged” by Dick West, (UPI News Service), Start Page 4, Quote Page 9, Williamson, West Virginia. (Google News Archive)
  22. 1992, The Diversity of Life by Edward O. Wilson, Chapter 8: The Unexplored Biosphere, Quote Page 133, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Google Books preview)
  23. 1994 January 25, The Scotsman, Fearful beekeepers plead for curbs on honey imports by Chris Mclaughlin (European Editor, Brussels), The Scotsman Publications Ltd. (LexisNexis Academic; thanks to Bonnie Taylor-Blake and the University of North Carolina)