What's Buzzin' With Spike the Bee?by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
Spike the Bee is an appealing little character who appeared in a supporting role in several Disney animated shorts released during the 1950s. Since 2018, he has become a sort of unofficial mascot of the Epcot Flower and Garden Festival.
Spike's Pollen Nation Exploration scavenger hunt returns for the entire run of this year's Festival where guests can purchase a map and search for Spike around the park and then return their completed map for a prize. Annual Passholders can pick up two complimentary magnets during the 2020 Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival. One of them is "Donald Duck with Spike the Bee" magnet that will be available March 4 to April 19. The National Honey Board (NHB) sponsors The Honey Bee-stro where it promotes the story of honey bees, honey and the importance of bees in the ecological system and the importance of protecting them. A cute Spike the Bee Sipper will be available, while supplies last, at The Honey Bee-stro and will contain Honey-Peach Freeze.
In the cartoons, Spike has stung multiple times, meaning he's a bumblebee, as honey bees can only sting once before dying. However, to make things more confusing several of his cartoon adventures show him gathering honey suggesting he is a honey bee. Disney was not always consistent when it came to its animated characters. For instance, Donald can show teeth when he needs to do so but the rest of the time, he just has a flat duck bill.
In recent years, the Spike character has reappeared in episodes of the animated series Mickey Mouse Clubhouse (Goofy's Bird, Minnie's Bee Story, Mickey's Little Parade) and in the Disney Channel Mickey Mouse short cartoons (Bee Inspired, New Shoes). In Bee Inspired, Spike continually disrupts Mickey from posing for Minnie's painting. However, by the end, he saves Mickey from an angry swarm of bees.
In the Chip'n'Dale Rescue Rangers episode titled Risky Beesness, there is a swarm of bees that resemble Spike.
Over the decades, I had the opportunity to interview some of the people involved with creating Spike who was originally called "Buzz Buzz," although he was occasionally called Hector, Barrington and other names before Disney officially determined the name should be Spike.
Jack Hannah was an animator, storyman (with Carl Barks) and director of classic Donald Duck cartoon shorts. He was the first Disney animator I ever met and interviewed. I interviewed him several times over the years before his passing and much of that material has been used by everyone including the Walt Disney Company.
I compiled that material into a book From Donald Duck's Daddy to Disney Legend.
Jack told me that when he became a director on the Donald Duck shorts that:
"One of the first things I did was begin to find some foils for the Duck. There are only so many stories you can come up with for him but if you have a strong supporting cast that provides so many more interesting springboards for stories. Naturally, his three nephews were always available. They were developed because you've got to give a storyman an outlet for a new line of gags
"To bring some variety to the Duck shorts, I tried to develop some interesting supporting characters. We used a bee character we called 'Buzz Buzz' a lot to antagonize the Duck. Probably the idea was that the bee is a menace with that stinger as a weapon and is much smaller than the Duck so it would be funny having the little guy battling a big bully. You can get a funny sound effect out of a bee. They can cuss you out with that little bee noise."
That bee-talk was the work of Disney sound effects expert Jimmy MacDonald who always found unusual solutions to difficult problems like creating the sound effect of Maleficient's dragon breathing fire by using a military flame thrower. For Spike and his bee companions, MacDonald made the sound of the bees by blowing through a rubber tube and rubbing on a taut rubber membrane stretched across an old wooden spool. MacDonald told me, "This condom, which I had my young assistant buy for me at a drug store is the only thing exactly the right thickness and resonance that worked. I'm sure the manufacturer never thought it would make the sound of bees for a Walt Disney cartoon."
The design for Spike owes a lot to Bill Justice, who animated on most of Hannah's cartoons, especially the ones featuring Chip'n'Dale. In fact, Dale's large clownish nose was borrowed for Spike to make the character more appealing. Spike was not an aggressive menace. He was actually quite innocent and just did what a bee would instinctively do. However, if he found himself the victim of malicious actions, he had no hesitation to defend himself with his sharp stinger.
If not for the fact that Disney was getting out of the business of making theatrical cartoons in the 1950s, Spike might have ended up with his own series like Pluto, Humphrey the Bear and others.
Here is a filmography of the classic cartoons that featured Spike:
Inferior Decorator (1948): Directed by Jack Hannah. Spike is pollinating flowers in the garden outside Donald's house and mistakes the flowered wallpaper in the house for real flowers. He gets tormented by Donald but eventually invites the other bees from his hive inside to sting Donald's rear end. The original working title for the cartoon was Bees in Your Plants. The short was adapted into a one page story in rhyme drawn by Don Gunn in Walt Disney Comics and Stories #92 (1948)
Bubble Bee (1949): Directed by Charles Nichols. Pluto discovers that Spike is able to get into a bubble gum machine and pull out a gumball that he takes to his hive. While Spike is away, Pluto gorges himself on the hoard of gumballs and when the angry bee returns, Pluto defends himself with bubbles he blows from the chewed gum including trapping the bee in one of them.
Honey Harvester (1949): Directed by Jack Hannah. Donald is working in his greenhouse when he notices a bee harvesting nectar. Donald tries various things to find the hive and eventually discovers it in the radiator of an old car. He drains the honey into jars and starts to leave when Spike catches him and adds a cactus needle to extend his stinger. Donald relents and returns the honey. Spike can be heard buzzing the song Whistle While You Work from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs when he is harvesting. The short was adapted into a one page story in rhyme drawn by Harvey Eisenberg in Walt Disney Comics and Stories #99 (1948)
Slide, Donald, Slide (1949): Directed by Jack Hannah. Spike is listening to classical music on the radio pretending to be a conductor. Donald wants to listen to a baseball game and pretend he is a player. A battle ensues with the bee eventually winning.
Bee At the Beach (1950): Directed by Jack Hannah. Donald goes to spend a nice day at the beach but when he arrives he disrupts Spike trying to do the same thing. Once Donald gets comfortably in the ocean in an inflatable flotation ring, Spike attacks this inner tube, leaving Donald at the mercy of sharks.
Bee on Guard (1951): Directed by Jack Hannah. Spike is put in charge of guarding the hive that looks like a castle while the other bees go out to gather honey. He is tricked by Donald (wearing a bee costume) who steals the honey. The hive is run by a king bee rather than a queen as in real life.
Let's Stick Together (1962): Directed by Jack Hannah. An elderly Spike recognizes an elderly Donald picking up litter in the park and it sparks memories of the first day they met. They do many jobs together including mending clothing. Donald sold balloons at an amusement park but gets more money when Spike pops them and the kids have to buy another one. They get another job tattooing sailors. Spike falls in love with a bee girl and leaves Donald. All these years later he reconciles with Donald after he and his girlfriend who is now his wife have a marital spat.
The VHS Limited Gold Edition II released in 1985 by Disney titled Donald's Bee Pictures included Inferior Decorator, Honey Harvester, Slide,Donald,Slide, Window Cleaners, Bee at the Beach (replaced on some copies with Tea for Two Hundred with Donald battling ants), Bee on Guard, and Let's Stick Together. He also makes cameo appearances in Beezy Bear (1955) also directed by Hannah and the television episodes The Mad Hermit of Chimney Butte (1960) and The Ranger's Guide to Nature (1966).
Of course, more aggressive bees have appeared in several Disney cartoons including The Band Concert (1935) where a bee disrupts the musical performance.
In fact, an earlier more rough-and-tumble design of a bee was in Window Cleaners (1940) battling Donald Duck who is attempting to clean windows on a sky scrapper and Home Defense (1943) where Donald mistakenly thinks the buzzing sound is from enemy aircraft.
This bee is often mistakenly identified as an early version of Spike, whose appearance and personality is completely different from this bee character. The bee in these two cartoons also inspired some of the military designs done by the Disney Studios for various units and for a reasonably obscure mascot character in Northern California that I first wrote about over 10 years ago here at MousePlanet.
Over the years, Disney has created many advertising mascots from Fresh Up Freddie for the 7-Up soft drink to Tommy Mohawk for Mohawk Carpets to Bucky Beaver (with the sped up voice of Jimmy Dodd) for Ipana toothpaste and Foxy Loxy for Welch's grape jelly and juice.
In December 2009, a live-action character costumed Scoopy Bee visited Disneyland and posted photos. For the buzzy mascot of the three Northern California Bee newspapers, it was considered a visit home with his family, the other Disney characters.
The Sacramento Bee is a daily newspaper published in Sacramento, California, and is the largest newspaper in the State's capitol and the fifth-largest newspaper in California. It was 1857 when James McClatchy founded the paper. An editorial on the first day of publication said: "The name of The Bee has been adopted as being emblematic of the industry which is to prevail in its every department."
Basically, everyone at the newspaper was to be "as busy as a bee" McClatchy used a picture of a bee on his business stationery. When his son, C.K., took over, he ordered an image of a bee depicted in mosaic title in the lobby of the old Bee office in 1901. That mosaic now is on permanent display at the Sacramento History Museum.
Not long before his death in 1936, C.K. asked his youngest daughter Eleanor, an aspiring playwright, to take over the company. Eleanor would lead the company for the next 42 years. Her love for the arts and knowledge that Walt Disney was actively supplying artwork for many military-related activities prompted her to contact the Disney Studios and make an unusual offer.
In 1943, Eleanor McClatchy, who was anxious "to lend personality and a familiar identity to all the products" of the company from newspapers to radio stations, offered to donate $1,500 to the Army Relief Fund if Walt would create a definitive cartoon bee mascot for the company. Although not normally accepting outside commercial work at the time and swamped with war related work at the studio, Walt agreed. Formed a year earlier in 1942, the fund was dedicated to "helping the Army take care of its own" to provide emergency financial assistance to soldiers—active and retired—and their dependents when there is a valid need.
The September 4, 1943, front-page headline in The Sacramento Bee, The Fresno Bee and The Modesto Bee newspapers declared, "Two Busy Bees, Straight From the Pen of Walt Disney Make Appearance!" Underneath the large headline was a picture of one bee waving a newspaper with a huge letter "B" on it high over his head with his right hand while a stack of newspapers were cradled under his left arm. This was Scoopy, named after the popular newspaper expression "scoop" to get the important story first. On the other side was a bee talking into a radio microphone: Scoopy's twin brother Gaby—after the ability to "gab" or talk. In between was a photo of the world famous Walt Disney.
Scoopy adorned the front page mastheads of all three Bee papers and Gaby was used on radio station promotional material. For over 75 years, there was merchandise ranging from buttons to stuffed dolls.
Over the years, Bee newspaper staff artists added, supposedly with Disney's approval, Flutey (for the company's FM stations) and Teevy (for its television stations). Teevy ended each broadcast day on Channel 24 with a cartoon of him tucking himself into bed and bidding the audience "good night". Eventually, Gaby assumed the role of mascot for television, as well as radio. At least eight other variations of the original bee character have appeared periodically over the years.
In 2000, it was announced by the Bee newspapers that Gaby, Scoopy's "twin brother who was the mascot for all of the McClatchy-owned television stations including what is now KSEE-24 in Fresno but was then KMJ, retired a few years back. He lives a quiet life in Northern California, tending to his flower farm and buzzing the occasional picnic go-er."
The night of September 4, 1943, during primetime, which tied in with the newspaper front page story, was a 15-minute radio interview with Walt from Hollywood that was broadcast on KFBK. The broadcast on the Blue Network detailed the flight of the two bees up the California coast from the Burbank Studios to Sacramento. "Pretty good flying time for two tiny bees to make that trip in 30 minutes," joked Walt.
With the sound of airplane motors winding up in the background, the program announcer who had just finished an interview with Walt Disney said, "The two bees have reached the end of the runway. Now, they have turned their noses into the wind and here they come right past our microphone. They are gathering speed…. Their tails are off the ground…. Their wings are lifting and there they go!"
The bees flew through all of the cities that McClatchy had properties in, including Bakersfield, Reno, Fresno, Modesto and Sacramento. When they arrived in Sacramento, they were greeted by Eleanor McClatchy and the mayor.
All sorts of drawings were created for all sorts of different promotions and events featuring Scoopy, and the newspaper takes great pride and is fiercely protective that the artwork was from the pen of Walt Disney himself.
Actually, the bees were the work of talented and underappreciated Disney artist Hank Porter, another candidate for a future Disney Legends award. Like so many Disney artists, Porter was enticed by a newspaper advertisement to join the Disney Studios in mid-1936 as it was working on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and actively recruiting new artists. In fact, Porter was eventually assigned to the production of that first animated feature but the long hours staring into the light from the animator's light board strained his eyes badly.
He transferred to the Merchandise and Publicity Art Department where he created the art used for covers of magazine, toy box illustrations, magazine ads, drew both the Snow White and Pinocchio Sunday newspaper comic strips, and movie publicity art including theatrical posters and lobby cards.
Porter was authorized to sign Walt's famous signature on various artwork often given to people as gifts from Walt. An accomplished piano player, he was invited to become a member of The Firehouse Five Plus Two, but declined the offer. Porter left the Disney Studio in 1950 (turning over his responsibilities to Bob Moore) and succumbed to cancer a few years later.
Probably most memorably, starting in 1942, in addition to his other responsibilities, Porter supervised the World War II insignia unit (which included artists Roy Williams, Bill Justice, Van Kaufman, Ed Parks and George Goepper) in creating more than 1,200 designs during World War II for both American and Allied military units. Designs were also created for other organizations such as civil defense and war industries. All of this work was done by the studio free-of-charge as a donation to the war effort. It has been estimated that Porter himself created at least 60-75 percent of all the designs.
In addition to the established Disney characters (Donald Duck was the most popular and appeared on more than 200 designs), the design team also created hundreds of new, original characters including cats, dogs, apes, owls, pelicans…and bees.
The design for Scoopy can be traced to Disney-created insignias like the ones featuring a bee for the 114 Infantry Company "F" at Fort Dix New Jersey, the 39th Air Depot Group San Bernardino California, 78th Naval Construction Battalion, and Air Base Detachment Gray Field Ft. Lewis Washington.
The Seabees at Camp Hueneme, California, wrote that they wanted for their insignia "a delicious feminine queen bee, with rosebud lips, dewy bedroom eyes, and an atomizer to make her deadlier than the male" and armed with a machine gun! Porter created Phoebe the Female Seabee, who looks like she could be the long lost sister of Scoopy and Gaby.
Since Porter was already doing this type of design work so successfully, it was not unusual that Walt tossed the McClatchy assignment his way.
In Porter's original suggestions for the character, there is "Bee Suggestion (2)" with the "newsboy angle" that was finally selected. To the left of that picture was Porter's first suggestion, which was Scoopy reading an open newspaper with his back to the audience but looking over his shoulder at the readers. He is attired in the traditional apron and hat of a printer. A third suggestion is found in the upper tier of the next page where Scoopy is scooping with a trowel and mortar to build a solid hive home celebrating that the Bee was founded in 1857. It is easy to see why the newspaper chose the newsboy one.
Each of the three Bee newspapers has their own full-sized Scoopy character costumes used for meeting people at community events, county fairs, schools and more.
In 2000, Scoopy (who is on Facebook) stated, "Even though I am proud of my family—the reunions are a blast, last year Pluto got his head caught in a tree and Mickey and Donald Duck had a foot race that everyone watched—love working for The Bee!"
Yet many Disney fans are still unaware of his existence as are probably some folks who don't know the history of Spike the Bee.