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The Strange Way 'Birds and Bees' Help Us

In this Saturday, Feb. 11, 2017, photo, a bird flies by flowers of an orange silk cotton tree in Naypyitaw, Myanmar. (AP Photo/Aung Shine Oo)
In this Saturday, Feb. 11, 2017, photo, a bird flies by flowers of an orange silk cotton tree in Naypyitaw, Myanmar. (AP Photo/Aung Shine Oo)
The Strange Way 'Birds and Bees' Help Us
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Now, it’s time for Words and Their Stories from VOA Learning English.

Spring is in the air! Well, at least, in half of the world. The amount of daylight in the northern half is increasing, day by day. And air temperatures are slowly rising.

Spring is a season for growth and rebirth. Many insects, plants and even some animals are coming out of a deep, deep sleep. Bees and birds are especially active.

All around life is buzzing.

And for many people, spring is a time for love. All this talk of love and rebirth might get some people thinking about sex. And children, who seem to overhear everything interesting, might start asking questions. A few of these questions adults sometimes have trouble answering, such as “Where do babies come from?”

It is important for parents to talk with their children about sex. But such discussions can be uncomfortable and even embarrassing. To make this subject easier to talk about, adults sometimes explain sex and sexual reproduction by telling the child how animals reproduce.

Years ago, parents and even schoolteachers would call the subject of human sexuality and reproduction “the birds and the bees.” This gave them a way to avoid saying the word “sex.”

Several language websites give the English writer Samuel Taylor Coleridge credit for this expression. Let’s listen to a reading from his poem "Work Without Hope."

All nature seems at work … The bees are stirring--birds are on the wing … and I the while, the sole unbusy thing, not honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.

Literary experts say that when Coleridge writes of bees “stirring” and birds “on the wing,” he means they are having sex. And he is suggesting that he is not.

The expression “the birds and the bees” is unclear. It can lead to more questions and misunderstanding in a child. More often than not, it does lead to a lot of embarrassment.

This is an old expression and it may sound dated. But Americans still use it, usually in a humorous way.

Let’s hear how a teenager might use the term.

“Last night, my mother took me to my favorite restaurant. I thought it was to celebrate my good grades. But as it turns out, she said that just wanted ‘to talk about the birds and the bees.’ She actually said, ‘the birds and the bees!’ And the waiter heard! I’ve never been so embarrassed in my whole life!!”

But we have another expression that is a little more serious. And you can also use when you still want to avoid the actual words “sex education.” You can simply call those details the facts of life.

You take the good, You take the bad
You take them both and there you have
The facts of life, The facts of life

There's a time you got to go and show
You're growin' now you know about
The facts of life, the facts of life.


That song opened the 1980s television show “The Facts of Life.” Set at a private girl’s school, the coming-of-age show was funny. But it also dealt with teenage girls and the issues they face, such as sex and relationships.

So, “the birds and the bees,” and “facts of life” are both expressions that let you avoid saying the word “sex.”

We have another evasive expression involving the word “bird.” But this one lets you avoid telling from where you heard something.

Let’s say you overheard something you were not supposed to hear or you learned some news but don’t want to say who told you. You could say “a little bird told me.”

But be warned. This expression may be a bit too sweet for some people.

Now let’s hear how to use these expressions.

A: Hey, I heard that you’re going on a trip for a few days.

B: Yes, I’m visiting my sister out in California. But how did you know? I’ve only told one or two people here at work.

A: Oh, a little bird told me. Anyway, don’t worry. I won’t say a thing. How long will you be gone?

B: A week! I love spending time with my sister and her children. Those kids are so intelligent.

A: Children these days seem so much more like adults than we were at that age. For example, they really know their way around computers and technology.

A: Don’t get me started about the birds and the bees! I think my 12-year-old niece knows more about human reproduction than I did in my 20s!

B: And I suspect she doesn’t call it “the birds and the bees,” does she?

A: No, she does not In fact, when we talked about the facts of life, she uses all the scientific terms. Very specific language. It was a little uncomfortable.

B: For who? You or her.

A: Me, naturally. .

And that’s Words and Their Stories. Join us again next week when we explore the meaning of other expressions in American English.

I’m Anna Matteo.

Let me tell you 'bout the birds and the bees
And the flowers and the trees
The moon up above, and the thing called love

Let me tell you 'bout the stars in the sky
The girl and the guy
And the way they could kiss
On a night like this ...

Do you have an expression in your language that lets you avoid talking about embarrassing or difficult topics? Let us know in the Comments Section.

Anna Matteo wrote this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

buzzing – v. making a sound like that of a bee

uncomfortable adj. feeling uneasy

embarrassing adj. feeling foolish in front of other people

honey – n. a sweet, sticky material made by bees

evasive adj. done to avoid harm, an accident, etc.

niece – n. the daughter of one’s brother or sister, or someone married to your brother or sister