There’s been a kerfuffle on Twitter over the past few days, regarding a tweet by an American journalist posted on 31st December 2019. The tweet was sardonic comment on an image of a number of Manchester Bee tattoos, pointing out that with one set of wings, the bees were, taxonomically speaking, flies. This statement was not well received, with many people pointing out the significance of the tattoos in relation to the Manchester Bombing. They also asked the person to delete the tweet and apologise for insensitivity.
As the original poster has deleted the tweet and apologised I won’t mention their name, but I did want to comment on it for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I’ve not seen this particular identification raised before. There’s been past comments that some Manchester Bee designs more closely resemble wasps than bees, but never flies. Also, as specific information on this website regarding this topic is spread over a number of articles, so I wanted to draw it together in one place.
The Coat of Arms
During the Industrial Revolution, Manchester was granted its coat of arms in 1842. The crest described thusly:
On a Wreath of the Colours a Terrestrial Globe semee of Bees volant all proper.
“Semee” translates as sprinkled or strewn, “volant” is french for flying and “all proper” means with in flight with wings aspread. There’s a couple of possible reasons why bees were chosen, but it’s commonly thought it’s because they represent industry, and their placement on a globe highlighted Manchester’s global trading link. The number of bees isn’t specified, but most depictions of the arms feature seven.
As you can see above and from other examples, the bees are almost always depicted with four wings, excepted on the smallest of designs. In nature, their front and rear wings hook together to form one big pair of wings, unhooking for easy folding when not flying. But the coat of arms isn’t really the source of the Manchester Bee. There are many arms across Europe that feature bees, but none of those have taken on the same significance as they do in Manchester. For the Manchester Bee, we need to look to Manchester Town Hall.
The Town Hall Bees
There are a number of different depictions of bees within the town hall, but they all feature four wings except in the area commonly known as “The Bees”. In the rest of the building, mosaicked cotton flowers run along the floor, but here there are 67 bees displayed outside the first-floor Great Hall. My presumption is that they were placed here to highlight all the bees that adorn the ceiling inside the hall, flying amidst the coat of arms of Manchester’s main trading partners.
I’ve not discovered who created this particular design. It could have been the architect, Albert Waterhouse, or one of the Italian craftsmen who laid out the flooring. Whoever it was, they simplified the wings into one set of wings instead of two. It’s this design that directly inspired Warren Marshall’s bollard bee in 1976, which spread the design across the city and brought it to today’s prominence as the image of the Manchester Bee.