Any reader of the Manchester Historian is bound to have seen the ‘worker bee’ upon just about every surface in the city centre; from public bins to engravings in the Town Hall’s mosaic floor, it is hard to ignore the insect as a powerful motif embodying the Mancunian identity. But where does it originate from?
The bee first appeared in Manchester’s coat of arms in 1842, becoming undeniably the most iconic symbol for the area (other symbols included the Lancaster rose and cotton grass). It was subsequently adopted as a symbol representing both the city’s prosperity and the population’s unrivalled work ethic during the Industrial Revolution – a time when Manchester assumed a leading role in new methods of mass production. The city flourished as a hub of textile mills and was referred to as the “beehive of industry”. The Manchester Council website defines the bee as a representation of the “sense of unity in our great city”; this is what this article will explore.
An impromptu phone interview with my Mancunian mother confirmed my suspicions that the level of bee-related memorabilia found in our city centre has not always been this extensive. Although the motif appeared regularly throughout both of our recollections of Manchester’s public decorum, neither of us could deny that the largest cause of its surge in popularity by far came as a result of the 2017 M.E.N Arena bombing.
The tragedy (the first UK terrorist bombing since 2005) was met with an outpour of support from around the world, but most evidently within the local community; immediately, murals were painted across the city, notably the 22 bees (portraying the lives lost) on the side of the Koffee Pot café in the Northern Quarter, or the large section of Affleck’s Palace that is decorated to this day with bees and honeycomb. Some of Manchester’s sickest children in the Ronald McDonald Hospital offered their beds for the victims’ families, and of course, no northerner could forget the incredible ‘One Love’ concert organised by Ariana Grande herself. The event raised over £10 million in just 12 hours, and over 100 million live viewers watched huge names perform to raise money for the victims’ families. The morning after the tragedy, a memorial event in St Ann’s Square brought mourners together to lay flowers and sing locally-produced songs such as Oasis’ ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’ – a song deeply resonating with Mancunians as one of pride, unity, and strength. One of the most admirable gestures was organised by Sam Barber, a tattoo artist who set up the Manchester Tattoo Appeal, which offered bee tattoos in exchange for a minimum donation of £50. He estimated that the event raised at least £500,000, with customers queuing for hours on end to get inked.
In the years since the attack, Manchester has continued to expand the bee’s symbolism, with many government schemes incorporating the insect into their design. For example, the new ‘Bee Network’ aims to revolutionise ‘active’ transport throughout the city, one of its key investments being the ‘bee bikes’ that can be found on Oxford (and Wilmslow) Road. Global brand Nike collaborated with One Love MCR and ‘Size?’ to create a limited-edition Manchester-themed Air Force Ones, which incorporated a honeycomb design and the bee as well as the ‘0161’ area code. Ten percent of the proceeds went to the We Love MCR Charity and JD’s ‘Manchester’s Rising Stars’ Fund.
The ‘Bee in the City’ exhibition ran during the summer of 2018, displaying a swarm (pun intended) of over 100 ‘super-sized’ bee sculptures decorated by local artists along a trail touching on the ‘honeypots’ (landmarks) of the city. The event raised over £1 million, as 78 were auctioned at the end of the summer. Local celebrities got involved, with Liam Gallagher painting the ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Bee’, and The Stone Roses bassist Gary ‘Mani’ Mounfield signing ‘I Wanna Bee Adored’. Some of these bees can still be found in and around Manchester, namely the ‘LGBTQ Queen Bee’ in Sackville Gardens (Gay Village), the ‘Blue Bee-ter’ in MediaCity, and a few elsewhere in the city centre.
The Manchester bee in recent years has undeniably become the most iconic city emblem in the UK. The hardships faced in 2017 have since given the motif a greater meaning, now empowered through its symbolisation of unity and defiance. After 150 years of symbolic representation, the bee could now be referred to as a ‘busy bee’, mimicking the modern-day hustle and bustle of workers in this developed city. The citizens of Manchester are a proud people, and its community has never failed to join together as one in the face of adversity. This level of pride and unity significantly matched Manchester’s collective response to the IRA bombings of 1996. Though the response lacked the use of the bee as a symbol of recovery, the message remained the same:
“But Manchester did what Manchester does – we fought back.
It was the beginning of the remarkable story of our city’s rebirth.
It is a tale of great endeavour, of collaboration across the political divide, of traders who stayed loyal, of shoppers who came back and of the tremendous skill of an architect who lovingly redrew and rebuilt Manchester’s shattered heart.
No other city, no other people would have responded with such a defiant swagger.”
– Jennifer Williams, Manchester Evening News (2019)