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Maya the Bee: Prussian Military Origins

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“Hail, Emperor, those who are about to die salute you!”—De Vita Cæsarum

“That which is not good for the beehive cannot be good for the bees.”—Marcus Aurelius

“His labor is a chant,
His idleness a tune;
Oh, for a bee’s experience
Of clovers and of noon!”
    —Emily Dickinson, The Bee



In 1912, Austrian children’s writer Waldemar Bonsels wrote what would be a classic book that would endure for over a century.  It was a short book titled Die Biene Maja, or in English, Maya the Bee.  Maya has been translated out of German and into many languages since, and has been adapted to a feature film twice (in 1924 and again in 2014), and twice to television, as well (first in a 1975 Japanese production, a second Japanese production in 1979, and then in a 2012 French production).  The 1975 cartoon was introduced to the United States in 1990 by the American-Israeli television production company Saban, using an all-Canadian cast of voice actors to dub the show.  (An earlier dubbed version by the BBC was the first English-language version of the show, but since the characters were given somewhat upper-crust English accents, it wouldn’t have played well in North America.)

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An actual still from the 1924 film Maya the Bee.  Talk about cinéma vérité!

 Maya the Bee is about Maya, a young bee who (in the original book) is growing up during domestic turmoil.  Her hive is splitting into two, and the bees are choosing whether or not to stay or to go.  During this tumult, she’s still growing up, learning life’s lessons.  Eventually Maya makes her choice: she leaves the hive.  This is an unpardonable crime, and her hive condemns her for it.  She can never go back, so she heads out into the world to make a new life.  The problem with this plan is that bees, being social animals, don’t do so well on their own.  Maya is captured by hornets and held prisoner.  While captive, she learns of the hornets’ plan to attack her old hive.  Girded with this information, she manages an escape and hurries home to warn the hive.  Grateful for this intelligence, the hive forgives her and welcomes her back.  With this warning, they’re able to prepare for the war with the hornets and preserve their world, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Naturally, a nice story like this is going to draw controversy.  In fact, it still does, though the more modern adaptations have bled a good deal of this controversy out of the story.  The original story has been interpreted as a parable of militarism, nationalism, and racism.  Maya, despite her prodigal episode, is thought to represent the ideal citizen, and in the end, she does come through.  She might have left the order, but she did come back, after all, primarily to protect the hive from attack.  Some analysts have read the invading hornets as a metaphor for what some felt to be a Jewish threat to Europe.  Maya condemns the hornets as “a useless gang of bandits” that have “no homeland or religion”.  The parallels to the anti-Semitism of the day are hard to miss here.  While Maya is running around on her own, a fly calls her an idiot, and she responds to the insult with the threat of her stinger, warning the fly that she’ll teach him “respect for the bees”.  (Never mind that biologically, bees die once they use their stingers.  We must allow Bonsels some artistic license here.)  When the hornet attack comes, Maya survives, but many of the bee officers don’t.  Those who are killed in battle are glorified for having given their lives—another tone of militarism.

Germany and Austria might have been defeated in World War I, but their respective militarisms were not.  Maya was not defeated either, as evinced by the enduring popularity of the book and, moreso, the onscreen world that the book inspired.  After World War II, Germany and Austria had lost their taste for militarism, and the book’s message of militarism was far less poignant, and went largely ignored.  But the book was never forgotten.

In 1975, Zuiyo Enterprise (today known as Nippon Animation) created the first animated version of the story, and introduced a very different world.  Japan had also moved away from militarism since World War II, and the Maya cartoons showed it.  In the 1975 version, Maya’s energy remains a driving force behind her character.  She frequently argues with other insects, but also seeks their company, and makes an effort to befriend them.  (She does harbor a strong dislike for a spider character in the show, but considering the relationship between spiders and insects, this is forgivable.)  The character of Willie plays the lazy, good-natured foil to Maya, as the two of them, like in the book, set out to live life separate from the hive.  At the end of the series, there’s a two-part story that borrows the hornet attack from the book.  Similarly, Maya is captured, learns of the hornets’ plans, and escapes to warn the hive, and the hornets come to attack only to be repulsed by the defending bees.  The hive welcomes Maya back into its society, which she does not expect.  Notably absent are the bee casualties and their subsequent glorification for dying in battle.  It’s a war, sure, but the cartoon doesn’t really go into what wars are all about: good thing we’re at peace now, right?

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Maya gets animated in 1975 in the Japanese cartoon Maya the Bee.

The 2012 French production from Studio 100 Animation takes a different approach than the 1975 Japanese cartoon.  In the French version, Maya still interacts with the hive, just like she did in the novel.  Willie, created for the 1975 cartoon, is once again Maya’s constant companion.  Maya reports directly to Mrs. Cassandra, her teacher in the 1912 novel, and has adventures both within and outside the hive.  She and Willie choose to live in the meadow because they “love freedom”.  The responsibilities of living in a regimented, highly organized society are relaxed in this new version, and with no repercussions!

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Maya and her friends in the 2012 Maya the Bee from the French Studio 100.
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A German postage stamp salutes Maya and her insect friends in 1998.

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