“Creativity is forged in Manchester on the anvil of industry.”
– above quote from anonymous Manchester artist Mancsy.
Manchester has been thrust onto the international map the past couple of days, for unfortunate reasons that I won’t go into here.
But as tributes and messages of support for the city circulate the internet, you may have noticed a common theme running through the buzz – the iconic symbol of the worker bee.
In this article I’m going to look into the history and origins of the Bee of Manchester, and how the humble bumble came to represent the city.
I have a personal draw and attachment to bees. My grandpa has always kept them, and honey, honeycomb, hexagonal bars of golden wax and honeycomb-patterned stick candles all have a small but significant, affectionate role in my memories of childhood. Conjuring up the memory of the wholesome scent of the wax triggers a warm nostalgia which casually dismisses the past two decades of my life and transports me back to our council house kitchen. Having only been to Manchester on one brief occasion a long time ago, until this week I was ignorant of the city’s fellow connection with the small but mighty creature. So when images of bees started popping up on social media sites and in news articles, I felt obliged to explore the ideology behind the symbol.
The Manchester Bee is a worker bee. For those of you with limited bee-ology (coining that term right now) knowledge, the life of the worker bee starts as an egg, laid by the queen bee. After three days it hatches into a larva, which nurse bees feed first royal jelly, then pollen and honey for six days. It then becomes an inactive pupa, sealed in a cell for 14 days where it grows into a worker bee. On the 21st day of its life, the worker bee reemerges into the world and sets to work. Its tasks are varied and many, some pleasant, some less so, but all necessary for the collective good of the colony. Bees play a vital role in the earth’s whole ecosystem by pollinating crops, including almost the entirety of civilization’s food supply (either eaten directly or used to feed animals for meat and dairy), so we have a lot to thank their hard work for.
And so the worker bee symbolism starts to take shape: the idea of hard work – both individually and collectively – for the success and greater good of a wider communality.
The worker bee has been a symbol for Manchester since the mid nineteenth century when in 1842, following the Industrial Revolution, seven bees were included on Manchester City Council’s new coat of arms. The industrial revolution spanned from 1760 – 1840, give or take, and Manchester embraced the industrial shift, developing a thriving textile trade. It was largely the Mancunian textile mills, referred to at the time as ‘hives of activity’, which gave rise to the concept of the hard-working staff being the busy bees of the mills. (For those of you who like to nerd out over things like this: the term busy bee is thought to have first been used by Geoffrey Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales (the Squire’s Tale) 1386-1400.)
A particularly charming early image of the Manchester City Counil coat of arms, from a JaJa postcard, 1905.
Subsequent to the depiction of bees swarming across the globe on Manchester’s coat of arms, the symbol has been used on landmarks around the city, on the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Manchester, the old Boddington’s Brewery logo, the clock face at the Victorian Palace Hotel, and the mosaic hive flooring of the Town Hall. The University of Manchester, which has three bees on its crest, says the symbol “represents the city’s innovative and enterprising past”. The symbol seemed to fade from grace for a while, as Mancunians rejected the idea of crowd mentality and instead championed themselves as pioneers of free thinking and individuality. More recently, following the installation in 2014 of 600 litter bins emblazoned with a bee strikingly set against a glinting honeycomb backdrop, the Manchester Bee has buzzed its way back into the city’s identity. And, following this weeks violent goings on, it’s acquired a whole new strength and relevance.
Detail of a honeycomb Manchester litter bin / Detail of the bee-emblazoned Town Hall mosaic floor
Local James Cairns famously Tweeted: 200 years a symbol of Manchester is the Worker Bee. Cooperative, resilient, and communitarian. Togetherness is still our greatest strength.
Fellow local Tim Cocker wrote: There’s a reason the Bee is our symbol in Manchester. Togetherness. Hard work. Sacrifice. And we don’t, and won’t, stop.
The resilience and work ethic originally spearheaded by the busy bees of the Mancunian cotton mills in the 1800s is now poignantly relevant to local police officers, doctors and even taxi drivers who worked to get people to safety in a time of crisis. Individuals the globe over who are tirelessly dedicated to helping others could be celebrated, strengthened, encouraged and empowered by the solidarity of this collective symbol. I’m a wholehearted advocate of the importance of promoting a collective stance of strength and solidarity – it’s the way we’ll progress past this culture of fear that we’re so close to being eaten whole by.
Concilo et Labor – with Wisdom and Effort, like the small but strong creature that has come to symbolise the city of Manchester, we too can succeed by working together as a collective.