As Busy as a Bee

This has been illustrated by my six-year-old son

DSC03465

This is how I am feeling at the moment! I’m sure we’ve all felt like that. And people have been feeling like that, or at least using this simile to express it, for hundreds of years. The earliest known historical use is in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1343-1400). We find it in the Squire’s Tale:

Ey! Goddes mercy!” sayd our Hoste tho,
Now such a wyf I pray God keep me fro.
Lo, suche sleightes and subtilitees
In wommen be; for ay as busy as bees
Be thay us seely men for to desceyve,
And from a soth ever a lie thay weyve.

(My own loose translation into Modern English): “God’s mercy,” said our host. “Now from such a wife I pray God keep me, Such slyness and subtleties are in women, for as busy as bees they deceive us men, And weave a lie from a tale.”

Not a nice sentiment for women, of course, although perhaps not unusual for its time, but the interesting thing is that the simile has remained unchanged, and we still use this form today.

Why bees in particular? Are bees extremely busy? Well, they certainly give the impression of being very busy! They fly about at a great speed, going from flower to flower, they never seem to rest. You don’t see them sitting lazily in the sun, like a lizard! And of course they hum, which is a busy sound in human terms – the hum of a marketplace, a busy human gathering.

Taking a quick look at other languages, it seems the bee image is by no means unique to English! We find it firstly in Czech, where být pilný jako včela – “be as busy as a bee” has the same image, but a slightly different connotation from the English idiom. Whereas in English this expression is associated with the present, someone is very busy, has a lot to do now, in Czech the impression given is that the person is in general hardworking.

Polish and Swedish have something in common – they both use the same expressions in this context: Pracowity jak pszczoła from Polish and flitig som ett bi from Swedish, both meaning “busy as a bee”, and pracowity jak mrówka (Polish) and flitig som en myra (Swedish), both translating as “busy as an ant”.

I rather like the Welsh expression prysur fel lladd nadroedd, which means “busy like killing snakes”! I wouldn’t have thought that the Welsh spent all that much time killing snakes, but there you are, you never know!

Coming from North Germany, the German expression, for when there’s a lot going on, things in general are really busy, so a slight shift in meaning, deserves a special mention of its own; da boxt der Papst – “the pope boxes”!

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3 thoughts on “As Busy as a Bee

  1. The heraldic coat of arms for the city of Blackburn, Lancashire in North West England features three bees in flight chosen as an emblem because the bee symbolises skill, perseverance and industry. (you can see an image of the crest here: http://www.blackburn.gov.uk/Pages/The-Crests-of-Blackburn-and-Darwen.aspx )

    As you’ve mentioned, the earliest extant historical example of the English simile “as busy as a bee” is found in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1343-1400) but I wonder if the expression or the attributed association with industriousness and bees is a lot older than we think? In the Roman poet Ovid’s (Publius Ovidius Naso 43 BC-17 AD) Latin narrative poem “Metamorphoses” which would’ve had an influence on such authors as Chaucer, Shakespeare etc. there is an allusion to the “apis sedula” (busy bee)
    Book XIII:
    “Non apis inde tulit conlectos sedula flores” – No busy bee ever gathered flowers from there.
    Latin adjective ‘sedula’ is the feminine of ‘sedulus’ meaning: diligent, industrious, zealous, unremitting, solicitous, assiduous, sedulous

    For many centuries the ant has been a symbol of thrift and industry. Æsop has a fable on the “Ant and the Grasshopper” in which the indolent grasshopper, in winter, went to the busy little ants to beg for food.
    The “busy as an ant” variation on the bee simile in other languages eg. pracowity jak mrówka (Polish) flitig som en myra (Swedish) flittig som en maur (Norwegian) is prossibly older than the ‘bee’ version as it is cited in the Classical languages of antiquity and found in the Bible as the reproachful advice:
    “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways and be wise” (Proverbs 6:6)
    Found in Latin, Greek and Hebrew of the Bible:

    Vade ad formicam o piger et considera vias eius et disce sapientiam (Latin)
    (formicam – ‘ant’ – in the above passage)

    ἴθι πρὸς τὸν μύρμηκα ὦ ὀκνηρέ καὶ ζήλωσον ἰδὼν τὰς ὁδοὺς αὐτοῦ καὶ γενοῦ ἐκείνου σοφώτερος
    (Greek transliteration: íthi prós tón mýrmika ó okniré kaí zíloson idó̱n tás odoús a̓ftoú kaí genoú ekeínou sofóteros)
    (μύρμηκα – mýrmika – ‘ant’ – in the above passage)

    לֵֽךְ־אֶל־נְמָלָ֥ה עָצֵ֑ל רְאֵ֖ה דְרָכֶ֣יהָ וַחֲכָֽם׃
    (Hebrew transliteration: leke ne-ma-lah ‘a-sel re-eh de-ra-ke-ha wa-ha-kam)
    (ne·mā·lāh – נְמָלָ֥ה – ‘the ant’ – in the above passage)

    • Wow! That was a fascinating reply! I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that the English simile had been influenced by earlier forms – it is an obvious association. Likewise, it is entirely possible that “busy as an ant” was at one time used in English.

      Just as an interesting aside – the modern Greek word for “ant” as only changed very slightly from the ancient word you mention above. Today it is μυρμήγκι, pronounced “mirminghi”

      • The Greek μυρμήγκι and μύρμηξ aren’t that far removed from the original PIE *morwi- meaning “ant” as well as all it’s descendants which are too numerous to list here but are still fairly close to *morwi- take Welsh, being a language were both familiar with, for example: morgrugyn and the South dialect myrionen.

        Incidentally, Chaucer also has an “ant” simile as well as his “bee” one although he uses the archaic to our ears ‘pismire’ for ant:

        “He is an angry as a pissemyre,
        Though þat he haue al that he kan desire.” ( The Summoner’s Tale)

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