1. Busy As A Bee (And Other Pest-Related Idioms)

FEBRUARY 25 2022 /

Busy As A Bee (And Other Pest-Related Idioms)

An idiom is defined as "a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words".

Many common idioms feature pests, such as bees and flies. We've tracked down some of the most popular pest-related idioms, determined their origin, and just how close to the truth they may be.


"He's busy as a bee"

two bees talking

Where it comes from: This term was first used by Geoffrey Chaucer in 1392, in his classic "The Canterbury Tales".  

Are bees truly busy? Yes and no. Worker bees will often work in some capacity through all hours of the day and night, while drones can be pretty lazy.

It is thought that this idiom is meant to compare the type of work bees do to how humans work. Many species of bees are social, and they each play an important role in a highly specialized workforce, just as people do.  


"They're dropping like flies"

Where it comes from: The earliest printed version of this phrase can be found in The Atlanta Constitution newspaper, featuring the subheading "Men and Women Dropped Like Flies and Flames".

The term is an allusion to the very short lifespan of flies. While often related to illness and death, "dropping like flies" can also be used when a large amount of people are absent from an event. 

How long do flies live? Once reaching the adult stage, most flies will not last for longer than a month before they "drop". Many will not last even this long, especially if they become trapped inside and have to face the wrath of a fly swatter. 


"She's quiet as a mouse" 

cartoon mouse saying shh


Where it comes from: This phrase seems to have originated in the 16th century, and is used to describe someone who is very quiet. Mice are known to make very little noise; even if you see one scurry across the floor, you are not likely to hear it. 

Do mice make any noises? Though they are quiet the majority of the time, mice are capable of making a high pitched squeaking sound. This is most often heard from male mice, as they do so to try to attract females.  


"The birds and the bees" 

Where it comes from: There is a bit of a debate surrounding when this phrase actually originated, but most people attribute it to Cole Porter's song "Let's Do It" (1928). One line says "birds do it, bees do it; even educated fleas do it; let's do it, let's fall in love".

The idiom itself is meant to teach children about reproduction, using the analogy of bees pollinating and bird eggs hatching.  

What happens when a bee pollinates? Pollination actually only refers to the reproduction of flowers and plants; it has nothing to do with the bees themselves reproducing.

The idea behind the explanation for children is: the bee moves the pollen to the right location, in order for reproduction to take place. This relates to human reproduction since male sperm needs to be relocated to a female egg.  


"Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite" 

lady closing tours


Where it comes from: The first use of this exact phrase was found in 1897, in a book called What They Say in New England: A Book of Signs, Sayings, and Superstitions. The biggest discrepancy surrounding this phrase is centered around the first part, "sleep tight".

Some people believe this is referring to tightening the ropes on a rope bed, in order to enhance comfort. Others think that it is suggesting you wear your pajamas tight, in order to keep the bedbugs out.

However, it seems that the truth lies in the actual meaning of "tight", which was often used to mean "soundly" or "well". Essentially, wishing this phrase to someone means "sleep well, and stay safe while you sleep". 

How long have the bedbugs been biting? Since before any humans truly slept "tight", that's for sure. Most scientists agree that bedbugs have been "bugging" humans for close to 11,000 years.

Prior to feeding on humans, bedbugs mainly fed on bats. Once humans began to make their homes in caves, bedbugs began to feed on them, as they were an easier target. 


"I smell a rat" 

cartoon rat smelling soup

Where it comes from: There is a debate surrounding what this phrase might mean. Some people believe it alludes to being able to smell a dead rat in a wall.

Others believe it might refer to dogs and cats being able to smell a rat from afar, but not see it.

Either way, the phrase is meant to be used when you suspect suspicious activity. This terminology may date back all the way to the 1597, as it was first found in Ben Johnson's The Case is Altered. 

If there's a rat in my house, would I be able to smell it? Probably not, unless it is dead. Living rats do sometimes come with an odor, but that is typically attributed to the smell of their urine and feces, and not the rat itself.

Every rat does have its own distinctive smell (just like humans do), but it is not strong enough for you to smell on your own.  


"She's the queen bee" 

girl with neck brace waving

Where it comes fromA human "queen bee" is the leader of a female group; commonly depicted in almost every high school film. She is typically popular, beautiful, wealthy, and a bit of a bully. She essentially "rules the school". 

How similar are these traits to actual queen bees? Not too far off, actually. Every job a bee performs in the nest relates to making sure the queen can do her job.

During the winter, social bees work hard to keep the queen warm. During warmer months, they make sure she is comfortable and well-fed, in order to lay eggs. Just like Regina George and Heather Chandler, queen bees are the center of attention, and the most important person (bee) in the room (hive).  


"You'll catch more flies with honey than vinegar"


Where it comes from: This phrase first appeared in the United States in 1744 in Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac. This phrase means that you are more likely to find success by being nice versus being rude. 

Can you actually catch more flies with honey? Not really. In fact, many people swear by a home remedy starring vinegar to eliminate fruit flies. Flies are actually more attracted to more odorous substances, therefore making them far more likely to be attracted to vinegar than honey. 


"If you lie down with dogs, you'll get up with fleas" 

cartoon smashing box

Where it comes from: This idiom also originates from Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Alamanac, written in 1744.

This phrase is typically taken to be a warning along the lines of "be careful who you spend your time with". Essentially, if you hang around the wrong people, you may end up in a less than ideal situation.  

Why do fleas prefer animals to humans? Fleas thrive in warm, dark, moist environments, such as your dog or cat's fur. Since humans lack fur, this environment is not nearly as abundant as it is on our pets. Fleas also favor house pets to other animals, as they thrive in indoor temperatures.

It is very important to take immediate action if you think your pet has been taken over by fleas. Many animals have an allergy to flea saliva that causes them to itch uncontrollably. 


"That's the bee's knees" 

people clapping

Where it comes from: This phrase originated in the 1920's when a whole slew of nonsensical expressions popped up, all meaning "incredibly outstanding". 

Do bees actually have knees? Kind of. Bees have segmented legs, with the segments connected by joints. These joints are often referred to as knees, but some people say that they aren't true knees due to the lack of a knee cap.  


"He's poor as a church mouse" 

girl on plane with sun glasses

Where it comes from: This term seems to go hand in hand with "hungry as a church mouse". It is used to describe a person who has nothing to spare. A church mouse is poor/hungry, because churches do not store food, and they therefore cannot scavenge and satisfy their hunger. 

Is there even such a thing as a "church mouse"? Not likely. Mice may find their way inside a church seeking warmth, but certainly will not stay if there is no source of food.  


"Mind your own beeswax" 

 little kid being rude

Where it comes from: This phrase originated in the 1920's, but there are a couple different theories as to where exactly it originated. It has been widely accepted that beeswax is simply a kinder substitute for business.

However, there is a more interesting theory that stems from colonial America. Women in this time supposedly stirred wax in kettles to make candles. If they didn't pay attention to the kettle, they could burn their hair and clothing; therefore prompting a reminder to "mind your own beeswax". 

What is beeswax? Beeswax is a wax produced by honeybees of the genus Apis. The wax comes from glands on the worker bee's abdomen, and is used to build the hexagon shaped cells in the nest. Beeswax is harvested, and used in everything from health products to candles. 


"You have ants in your pants" 

cartoon colony of ants

Where it comes from: No one is quite sure where this term originated from, but it seems that the earliest recorded use was in Chick Webb's 1934 song "I Can't Dance (I Got Ants in My Pants)".

The meaning behind it is exactly what you might think; a person who quite literally has ants in their pants would appear very restless. So, describing someone as having ants in their pants would be the same as calling someone antsy or jittery. 

Will ants actually crawl into my pants? While it's certainly not their favorite place to hang out, it's also not unheard of. Ants typically enjoy going after sweeter things, but they also scavenge for protein which can be found in skin flakes, and dirt and oil on your skin. Best be wary when enjoying a picnic in the grass! 


American Pest is your local pest control service that you can trust. Be sure to contact us with any pest concerns you may have in or around your property; we're here to help!