In 2002, Snopes came across a quote about bees' importance to the global ecosystem that the Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist Albert Einstein supposedly once said or wrote, reading: “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left.”
One tried-and-true method for getting people to pay attention to words is to put them into the mouth of a well-known, respected figure whom the public perceives as being an expert in the subject at hand. To make a point about whether our current political leaders are taking us down the right path, dig up an analogous quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln. Or, to comment on the nature of war (e.g., when it should be fought, how it should be fought, or the consequences of fighting it), find a relevant example credited to Robert E. Lee or George S. Patton.
Thus, recent concerns over a significant and mysterious decline in the population of pollinating honeybees (a phenomenon attributed to everything from global warming to insecticides to radiation from cell phone towers, and now thought to be the result of a fungus) have seen a resurgence in repetitions of the quote supposedly attributed to Einstein.
This truly sounds alarming: Bees are disappearing for reasons we can’t yet explain, and a certified genius such as Einstein noted long ago that if all the bees disappeared, we’d soon be following them into extinction. If the intent of propagating this quote is to get our attention, it’s certainly been working. Did Einstein sagely foresee an environmental crisis we’re only just now beginning to notice?
To answer that last question (without denying the importance of the honeybees), we have to consider the related question, “Did Einstein really say this?” First off, searches of Einstein’s writings and speeches and public statements, as well as of (scholarly) compilations of Einstein quotations, reveal nary a reference to the “four years” phrase or any other statement mentioning bees (save for a brief comparison between humans and colony insects such as ants and bees). The compiler of "The New Quotable Einstein" also found no Einsteinian source for this quote and lists it as “Probably Not by Einstein.”
Secondly, even though Einstein died in 1955, assiduous searching of a variety of databases of historical printed material (e.g., books, newspapers, magazines) has so far failed to turn up any mention of this quote (attributed to Einstein or anyone else) antedating 1994, when it suddenly started popping up in newspaper articles reporting on a protest in Brussels staged by beekeepers:
A pamphlet distributed [in Brussels] 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!' [...]
The beekeepers’ warnings had some heavyweight expert support. 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,' Einstein was quoted as saying. 'No more bees, no more pollination … no more men!'
Finally, Einstein was, of course, a physicist and not an entomologist or botanist (or any other form of biologist). It’s puzzling to imagine a context in which he would have made the statement about bees now attributed to him, or why he would have been perceived as saying something noteworthy that was unknown to his fellow scientists.
The best answer probably lies in examining the context in which the earliest citations of this putative quote (that we’ve found so far) appeared: a January 1994 political protest staged by European beekeepers over the issues of competition from lower-priced honey imports, artificially high prices for sugar (used as winter feed for bees), and a proposed reduction of tariffs that would make imported honey products even cheaper. A key part of that protest was beekeepers’ issuing dire predictions that, as beekeepers go, so go the bees — and as bees go, so go the food crops and other plants on which we depend:
The beekeepers claimed that if they were forced out of business, the honey bee could be eradicated in Europe since wild hives were already being decimated by a parasitic mite called varroa.
So far Scotland has escaped the devastating pest, but the threat elsewhere remains.
'Within a few years all the wild colonies will die out,' warned John Potter from Norwich.
'The honey bee is threatened with a rapid decline.'
If the bees became extinct, the protesters said the impact would go well beyond the livelihoods of the EU’s 16,000 full-time beekeepers and the some 430,000 part-timers.
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.
All in all, this looks like a classic case of a useful quote being invented and put into the mouth of a famous person for political purposes.
Ames, Paul. “Life’s Not So Sweet for Europe’s Embattled Beekeepers.”
Associated Press. 24 January 1994.
Fitzgerald, Jay. “‘Colony Collapse’ Worries Bee-Devil Farmers.”
Boston Herald. 18 April 2007.
Higgins, Adrian. “Honeybees in a Mite More Than Trouble.”
The Washington Post. 14 May 2002 (p. A1).
Calaprice, Alice. The New Quotable Einstein.
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-691-12074-9 (pp. 294-295).
McLaughlin, Chris. “Fearful Beekeepers Plead for Curbs on Honey Imports.”
The Scotsman. 25 January 1994.