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