White-tailed bumble bee (Bombus lucorum) on veronica longifolia
‘They think they’re the bee’s knees’ is an expression used rather disparagingly to describe people who think they have achieved something that sets them above others. Avid followers of fashion, otherwise known as fashion victims, may consider themselves the bee’s knees because they are up to the minute, following the latest trends.
Honey bee (Apis mellifera) on ceanothus
Where did the expression originate? Do bees have knees? They must have feet because they have inbuilt crampons. If they have knees do they have ankles as well?
Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable informs me that it is ‘said of something or someone outstanding.’ It is believed that a US columnist, T.A. (Tad) Dorgan first coined the phrase in the early 1920s. It may refer to ‘the pollen containers on a bee’s legs (the process of removing the pollen involves much bending of the bee’s knees and is performed with great precision), or maybe it is simply surreal (as with such contemporary synonyms as ‘ant’s pants’ and ‘cat’s pyjamas.’
With my anthropomorphic turn of mind I can imagine boy bees eyeing up girl bees and judging them by the relative merits of their limbs.
Boy bee 1: ‘Nice turn of ankle, but her pollen baskets are a bit thin.’
Boy bee 2: ‘She’s got nice knees. Nice eyes, too.’
Boy bee 1: ‘Slender waist – almost a wasp waist.’
Boy bee 2: ‘I couldn’t fancy a wasp, though. They’re quick to anger and then you really feel the sting.’
Boy bee 1: ‘What do you think of her antennae?’
Boy bee 2: ‘Not bad. I’ve seen better on a moth.’
Boy bee 1: ‘Given the choice, which would you go for – bumble bee or honey bee?’
Boy bee 2: ‘Bumble bee every time. I like a bit of substance.’
Boy bee 1: ‘Honey bee for me. Hard-working, nice smooth skin – you’d never go hungry with a honey bee.'