We love seeing how signs and symbols gain meaning in culture. And we have been intrigued by the rise of the bee.
The image of a community of bees has been used as a model of human society for millennia – from Aristotle to Shakespeare, from Plato to Marx. Their collaborative approach to work and collective living arrangements mean they are a perfect metaphor for people trying to function in communities. They represent perfect co-operation. They are more than the sum of their parts. The idea of lots of beings contributing to something wider also gives us the sense of collective intelligence, or the hive mind.
Away from the hive, bees have long represented the idea of hard work, of conquering an impossible feat. This is partly due to the (as it happens, false) belief that the laws of aerodynamics prove that bumblebees should be incapable of flight given their weight, wing size and beats per minute. This supposed defying of physics made them a symbol of sheer, bloody-minded determination, and ultimately success. They have been used as a motivating symbol of endeavour. To be as busy as a bee.
From these ancient meanings, the image of the bee has developed – recently enjoying a surge of popularity a fashion icon. From Gucci bags to Dolce & Gabbana suits, to Alex Monroe’s now iconic gold necklace, bees have been buzzing everywhere. And they have strong reason for their modern relevance. We know that the species is fragile in the face of climate change, and that, according to Einstein, humankind would have no more than four years left if they didn’t make it. Given this symbiotic relationship, they have become a powerful image of the fight against ecological disaster.
Recently, older meanings of the image have become more widely known. The worker bee is the symbol of the city of Manchester – featuring on its crest, heraldic arms and countless lampposts and bollards – adopted as a motif during the Industrial Revolution, when Manchester was a hive of activity, leading the way in new forms of mass production. In the past week, since the terrorist attack at Manchester Arena, this icon has become even more potent. Hundreds of people have had the image tattooed onto their bodies, with all proceeds going to those impacted. Dick Vincent’s “Stay strong, our kid” bee sketch went viral. The bee has now gained another layer of meaning – it now stands for resistance, solidarity, strength in togetherness.
From social structures to environmentalism to resilience, bees manage to cram a huge amount of meanings into their tiny space.