Anya Subich

On bees and piss

riddle answer

Why is a honey bee like a men's urinal? Have you guessed the riddle yet?


apis mellifera on a XIX century British urinal - A Victorian urinal target dating back at least as far as the 1880s features a bee

It turns out that in Victorian England it was common to decorate urinals with the images of honey bees. In Latin, denomination of a honey bee is apis mellifera, which sounds similar to “a piss”. So we have to deal here with somewhat sophisticatedly-vulgar humour of XIX century gentlemen. But why bother and put a picture on a urinal?

The answer is hidden in behavioral psychology.

The image was placed near the urinal drains, which allowed to decrease spillage of urine around the place - men instinctively like aiming the target. The same “small engineering trick” can be spotted today in the men’s lavatories of Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. Elegant flies, etched to the inner surface of urinals, help to significantly improve cleanliness and reduce cleaning costs.


urinal at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol - Urinals at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, the Netherlands’ main international airport, feature an etched image of a fly. According to Sphinx, the urinal manufacturer that provides the toilets for Schiphol, having the fly in the toilet represents savings in cleaning costs of 20% or more. Peter Biľak Peter Bilak

A fly was chosen for an honourable role of a target not by chance. Mike Friedberger, product director for chinaware at American Standard, explains:
If it’s something that you consciously don’t like, you’re more likely to pee on it. If they had put a pretty butterfly or ladybug there, men might not aim directly at it. On the other hand, if you used an ugly-looking spider or a cockroach, people might be afraid of it and not even stand there. A fly seems to be a compromise: something that is universally disliked, but that doesn’t elicit fear and make people not want to stand there.

Flies in Schiphol serve a charming example of a so-called nudge — design element that helps altering human behavior in a positive way without any enforcement.