Thousands of Britons are responding to the unspeakably disgusting events of Monday night by a small but powerful gesture of defiance. Driven by ardent feelings of anger and solidarity, they are tattooing themselves with the Manchester Bee, setting social media aflame with yellow and black. When we are left speechless and helpless by the horrors of what has happened in our midst, this is a forceful expression of so many things. These tiny insects, those three little letters, encapsulate so much of what Manchester is – and always will be – about.

The bee has long been the defining image of the Mancunian character. Since 1842 it has crowned the city’s coat of arms: atop the crest sits a globe around which buzz seven bees. These are, of course, the archetypal hard but selfless workers: focused in ambition but broad in range, this auspicious number flit across the world, symbolising the global reach – cultural and commercial – of Manchester. The motto that sits below is equally unambiguous: concilio et labore, “by assembly and work”. Collaborative words and productive deeds are the quintessence of the city, uniting it and pushing it forward.

Powered by the whir of the Industrial Revolution, Mancunians have for centuries been depicted as workers in their beehives – which, in “Cottonopolis”, were mostly mills and factories. Conditions were often grim and oppressive, but a collective spirit of endeavour ran throughout the city, a spirit that has not been lost. The efficacy of bees as a model of divided labour and shared gain had already been established in Bernard Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees (1714), long before Adam Smith so influentially formalised his ideas. It was appropriate, then, that the beehive formed the logo of the British co-operative movement, which began in 1844 with the Rochdale Pioneers a little to the north.

But the beehive symbolised even more: the whole activity of a society that was on the same page. As famously depicted by Cruikshank, the whole of Britain could be viewed as one harmonious hive. The Royal Family stand at the head, propped up by the pillars of state, the Lords and Commons. The free press takes pride of place beneath; professionals, tradesmen and labourers combine in their ranks below to form the congruous whole. The image is not mere Victorian fancy: it succinctly depicts the collective values of western democracy under a constitutional monarchy, of a country united in its core principles.

Well, the hive of activity in Manchester produced astounding results that soon spanned the world. Benjamin Disraeli, having visited Manchester to attend a debate (with Dickens in the chair), did not hesitate to assert in his novel Coningsby (1844) that:

“Manchester is as great a human achievement as Athens… It is the philosopher alone who can conceive the grandeur of Manchester and the immensity of its future.”

Yet it wasn’t always obvious that this was what the future held. The city could have given up after a terrible act of butchery. Almost 200 years ago, Manchester suffered the worst incident of civic strife on English soil, the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. A crowd of some 70,000 people, protesting vociferously for greater representation in Parliament, had amassed on St Peter’s Field. The yeomanry, failing to keep the crowd in order, panicked and fired indiscriminately into the crowd. Fifteen Mancunians were killed that day, and to national outrage. The event not only led to the foundation of the (Manchester) Guardian, but added great weight to the momentum for change, and in due course the Great Reform Act. A generation later, on the site of this tragedy, the Free Trade Hall was built, a physical embodiment of the principles that successfully repealed the Corn Laws. And so, out of violent tyranny sprung forward-thinking freedom.

The crystallisation of Mancunian ambition and self-assurance is the Town Hall, designed by Alfred Waterhouse (one of several Liverpudlian benefactions to the city) and completed in 1877. It is handsome externally, but internally is a true triumph of craftsmanship. Chief among these are celebrated murals by Ford Maddox Brown. But everywhere there are bees, with a swarm of 67 dominating the intricate mosaic.

The decision to set bees so prominently within the hub of civic activity is not idle. As well as being a potent symbol of industry they have always been at the heart of western civilisation. Bees fed Zeus (or, for the Romans, Jupiter) from his birth; they were the celebrated symbol of Athens; they were harbingers of poetic genius; they epitomised Roman industry. Coming to terms with the Roman Empire that was crystallising around him, Virgil gave his famous vignette of bees in the Georgics. “They alone,” he wrote, “share the buildings of their city with equal rights, and pass their lives under majestic laws, and they alone know a fixed fatherland and home.” Virgil’s bees were citizens and patriots, working selflessly for a communal greater good. In fact, the very empire that Virgil watched grow would later found Manchester: in 79 AD Agricola, then governor of Britain, headed west from Eboracum (York) and laid the foundations of Mamucium.

Two millennia later and the Mancunian bee is ubiquitous: it adorns masonry and merchandise, bins and bollards; it is rife in graffiti – on walls and now on bodies. Even the time is told in bees: the imposing tower of the Principal Manchester has a splendid clock, but on each of its four faces there are no numbers, only bees.

We all have ties with Manchester, direct or indirect, geographical or cultural. My first school was outside Oldham; my first wondrous sight of dinosaurs was in Manchester Museum; my first rugby kit – Oldham RLFC, away 1990-1 – gave me thrills of pride with the stitched bees of the Boddingtons logo. Not all memories are so comforting: I remember hearing the shuddering explosion of the Arndale Centre bomb in 1996. But I have always been drawn back to Manchester for pleasure: as a teenager, I travelled to Manchester for my first gig; I wrote my undergraduate thesis in a Whalley Range garden; I still seek out there the country’s best record shop whenever I can. Yet even those who have never been to Manchester can feel its reach. The most recent example is the victory of Manchester United at last night’s Europa League Final, watched and celebrated by fans across the globe, putting a firmly Mancunian stamp on perhaps England’s most famous export.

Some things do not change. When Queen Victoria observed of her visit to the city in 1851 that “in no other town could one depend so entirely upon the quiet and orderly behaviour of the people as in Manchester”, she was impressed by the self-restraint of the locals. In 2017 that same respect towards others is still a special feature of the people. But there are things Mancunians will not stand for. To bomb the most innocent of all – passionate and peaceful music lovers, among them helpless, wide-eyed children – is infinitely beyond the pale. Manchester cannot be the same again, and the scars – like the tattoos – will be permanent. But its underlying spirit is immutable and will endure. If a tin-pot, thick-as-mince Islamist thinks that his act of utterly mindless evil will cause the beating heart of Manchester to stop, he and his kind are tragically – but also laughably – mistaken.

St Chrysostom wrote that “the bee is more honoured than other animals, not because she labours, but because she labours for others”. Well, that same selflessness of Manchester has been brought into the public eye once more by the most horrific of triggers. In a moment of such abject despair at what atrocities the world can produce, we can find some solace in celebrating the proud, brave Mancunians and their inspirational hive of ceaseless activity. In an age when most tattoos have become so trite and trivial, the #ManchesterBee is a salutary and moving reminder of what transcendent eloquence a tattoo can have.

Dr David Butterfield grew up in Manchester. He is a Fellow in Classics at Queens’ College, Cambridge.