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Anyone who lives in or around the city of Manchester can’t have failed to notice the ubiquity of the worker bee symbol. The bee has a long history of association with the city, but in the years since the shocking terrorist attack at Manchester Arena in May 2017, it has proliferated as a symbol of resilience and pride.
The worker bee symbol was first used during the industrial revolution of the 19th century, when Manchester was at the heart of the world’s cotton textile industry. The founders of this new ‘cottonopolis’ wanted an emblem that reflected the ethos of the city, and the worker bee with its associations with hard work and productivity was their choice.
Seven bees were incorporated into a coat of arms with a globe to represent the worldwide textile trade, which was a form of early corporate branding for the city. Since then, the highly recognisable illustration of a bee with its wings open has appeared in the walls, windows, pavements and street furniture of Manchester.
At the Kimpton Clocktower on Oxford Road, bees are used to mark the quarter hours. The University of Manchester has the symbol on its coat of arms. The HMS Manchester which was part of the Royal Navy fleet in the 1970s was nicknamed ‘the Busy Bee’ and had the bee emblem on her crest.
In fact, nowadays it is almost impossible not to find the worker bee proudly displayed everywhere from the side of buses to tourist merchandise in shop windows. After the horrific Manchester Arena attack at an Ariana Grande concert five years ago, a new younger generation adopted the bee as a symbol of hope and unity.
The image is now ubiquitous across murals, landmarks, and social media, spreading awareness far beyond the confines of the city. Unfortunately in the past, the heavily polluted air around Manchester was not so conducive to the survival of real bees. Natural habitats were destroyed as the city rapidly expanded, and the insect population began to plummet.
Like most other areas of the UK, great strides have been made in recent years to improve the air quality and encourage biodiversity, even in the city centre. In fact, a number of buildings in the city even have rooftop beehives, including Manchester Cathedral which has four hives with around a quarter of a million bees!
The honey produced by the cathedral rooftop bees is collected and marketed as Heavenly Honey, and can be bought in the cathedral bookshop. The bees are looked after by Canon Adrian Rhodes, with the help of volunteers who are training to get back into full time employment.
Bees that do not produce honey still play a crucial role in pollinating trees and flowers and ensuring that the world can produce enough food crops. They remain under threat from climate change and habitat loss, so the more we can preserve our green spaces an native flora, the better for the future of the planet.
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