Updated: 22nd February 2021
We've all heard of the phrase 'the bees' knees'. If something is 'the bees' knees' then it must be good.
But do bees have knees - really? The answer is actually YES! Here is an explanation and diagram showing the anatomy of a bee's leg, with the knee clearly labelled.
So how do we know that bees have knees?
If we want to know whether or not bees have knees, we need to define exactly what a knee actually is.
Here is a definition from The American Heritage® Medical Dictionary (the third definition being especially pertinent here):
1. a. The joint between the thigh and the lower leg, formed by the articulation of the femur and the tibia and covered anteriorly by the patella.
b. The region of the leg that encloses and supports this joint.
2. An analogous joint or part of a leg of a quadruped vertebrate.
3. The joint between the femur and the tibia in an insect leg.
From: The American Heritage® Medical Dictionary Copyright © 2007, 2004 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.
Given that bees have both a femur and a tibia, it can therefore be stated that bees really do have knees.
It's interesting, however, that few diagrams of bee anatomy actually label the knee, but I eventually found one.
It comes from entomologist, Steven Falk's Field Guide to Great Britain And Ireland.
Here is the diagram from the section titled Bee Anatomy:
You can see that the leg of a bee is segmented, and those segments include
The three pairs of legs on a bee have distinct features, that sometimes vary, depending on the species.
However, it seems the bees' knees themselves perform no special function.
If you want to know about the origins of the phrase 'bee's knees', or find out how to make a 'Bee's Knees Cocktail', read on!
Nowadays we consider the term to mean ‘the best’, but it appears that it may not always have had this meaning.
The Oxford English Dictionary states that as far back as 1797, the expression ‘bee’s knee’ was used in Britain to mean something small or insignificant, but there is no evidence that this is the source of the later term ‘bee’s knees’.
Some say that it originated from “B’s and E’s” – meaning “the be-all and end-all” which, it is said is an allusion to Shakespeare’s use of the expression in Macbeth from 1605. In the famous play, Macbeth speaks these lines whilst contemplating assassinating King Duncan of Scotland so that he, Macbeth can then claim the throne. The words are:
If it were done, when 'tis done, then 'twere well
It were done quickly. If th' assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease, success: that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all.
But I wonder whether this could really be related to ‘bee’s knees’? Today we generally use the expression ‘be all and end all’ to suggest that something is not the only thing that matters, or even more casually it is used to hint that ‘the sky is not about to fall in’.
However, it’s possible to imagine that later, a love-struck some-one might refer to the apple of their eye as being ‘the be all and end all’ as far as they were concerned. Could this have humorously been twisted into ‘bee all and end all’ and then later, ‘the bee’s knees’?
There is no evidence for this either, and it’s too much of a stretch for me.
Another proposal is that it is from an accent or dialect corruption of the word ‘business’ (‘the beezness’ or ‘bees-in-ness’). These phrases were and are used in Cockney rhyming slang and in the US. (As an aside, another bee-related Cockney rhyming slang phrase is ‘bee and honey’ – meaning ‘money’). What is not clear is how this relates to ‘knees’ and why it should?
However, real evidence for its early use as an expression dates back to a spoof report from August 1906, in the West Coast Times in New Zealand. The paper reported that within the cargo carried by the SS Zealandia there were 7 cases of ‘bees knees’, along with a ‘quantity of post holes’.
There are other examples of the term being used in this way, i.e. as a means of deliberately misleading and befuddling someone with the reference to something that does not exist, such as asking a person to fetch striped paint or a sky hook.
Even so, why the use of the expression in a particular context should have evolved to have an entirely different meaning, is not clear.
The ‘bee’s knees’ became popular in the USA in the 1920s, and some suggest that the expression is an allusion to the World Champion Charleston dancer Bee Jackson – hence ‘Bee’s knees’!
On the other hand, perhaps given the dancer's name, it's just as likely that it seemed fitting to apply an already existing phrase 'Bee's Knees' to the dancer, following her success?
After all, the 1920s was a period of time when ‘bee’s knees’ took on the meaning of ‘the very best’, along with a range of similar ‘rhyming’ expressions in the USA such as: cat’s pyjamas; ant’s pants; caterpillar’s kimono; elephant’s instep; bullfrog’s beard.
These expressions did seem to catch on, and some (bee’s knees and cat’s pyjamas in particular) are still used today.
For me, it seems very plausible that it was one of many expressions that became popular that referenced the animal kingdom at that time.
That said, there is no real conclusive evidence that any of these are the definitive origins – so take your pick: an allusion to Shakespeare; a dialectic corruption of ‘business’; an allusion to a dancer’s anatomy; a nonsense term or rhyming slang expression!
The Bee’s Knees cocktail is a drink that originated in the USA during the prohibition era between 1920 and 1933 (the prohibition was the ban on production, importation and sale of alcoholic beverages in the US).
During the prohibition period, people would sometimes resort to making alcoholic drinks in the secrecy of their own homes.
It is thought that the cocktail was invented as a means of masking the poor smell and harsh taste of homemade gin (sometimes called ‘bathtub gin’) that was made as a means of circumventing the prohibition laws, and that occurred as a result of using poor quality grain alcohol.
The basic ingredients are: gin; lemon juice and honey served over ice, and with a ‘twist’ of lemon, although some recipes may contain orange juice. I also know of a recipe in which, having made the drink with the three main ingredients, the cocktail is then poured into a tall glass that is topped up with Prosecco.
Some recipes recommend using a little hot water to thin the honey – making honey syrup, which is easier to use, and therefore more popular in bars.
All the published recipes that I can find recommend mixing the ingredients in a cocktail shaker loaded with ice.
Sample recipe without orange juice:
2 oz gin
¾ oz honey
¾ oz lemon juice
A sample version that adds orange juice:
2 teaspoons honey
20ml lemon juice
20ml orange juice
Having tried it twice, I would recommend that you follow the recipe, but get ready to adjust it to your own taste if required.
The first time, we made it without paying much attention to the measurements. Mistake! For me, it was far too sharp - the kind of sharpness that makes you suck your cheeks in, quickly followed by a wide-eyed gasp!
The second time the recipe was followed, and it was much better.
I think the quality of the gin is also something to watch. Despite this recipe having its origins in the efforts of the day to disguise bad flavour, I suspect the modern pallet is a little more fussy. If you like cocktails, you probably want them to taste good, so it's best to go with a gin you know you like.
In terms of the selection of honey, that would be another interesting experiment. I'm not sure drinks manufacturers have cottoned on to the distinctive taste differences that honey can offer as yet, and I have not experimented. Furthermore, speciality honeys can carry a premium price tag that would increase the price tag in a bar.
Still..... for those who love honey and have a taste for more unusual gin drinks, it might prove to be an interesting experiment: different gin and honey combinations!
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