Less than 24 hours after Beyoncé premiered her visual album Lemonade on HBO, a conversation that initially centered on the project’s artistic depth quickly turned into a swarm of gossip. On the night of its release, fashion designer Rachel Roy made the mistake of recycling a line in the track “Sorry” (where Beyoncé sings about a mistress known as “Becky with the good hair”) in a now notorious Instagram photo captioned, “Good hair, don’t care.” The clear implication, which aligned with earlier speculation, was that Roy had had an affair with Jay Z. Roy’s Instagram page was immediately flooded with comments littered with bee and lemon emojis, dumped there by purported Beyoncé fans—the Beyhive—in support of their queen. The ensuing scandal made Roy cancel an event two days later, but the damage lives on in her comments section.
The Beyhive’s sometimes laughably menacing activities have earned them a reputation for being crazed, as well as an inordinate amount of media attention. Articles surface anytime Beyoncé-related emojis (bees, crowns, and now lemons) and negative comments appear on a famous person’s page, which is often. Infamous, relentless, devoted and, often, self-certified trolls, these so-called fans are active participants in what’s become a social media sport: attacking, in their own comical, psychologically damning way, anyone who dares to critique Beyoncé.
But these emoji-bombers who incessantly cape for Bey remain largely anonymous and impossible to quantify, in spite of their nonstop visibility. I wondered: Who are they, and why do they go so hard?
Like any habitual social media user, I’m way too accustomed to seeing garbage comments on celebrity pages (Instagram often attracts the worst of them) without thinking twice. But the comments on Roy’s page post-Lemonade (“home wrecker,” etc.) made me wonder what kind of person goes that far, though, and how many of them were human (possibly in multiple senses of the word). For a long time, I’ve assumed that the Beyhive consisted of bored teens and the type of adult trolls whose primary interaction with society is online. But when I investigated personally, the picture started to get bafflingly diverse.
Of the more than 30 Instagram users I messaged over the course of a week (all of whom had publicly commented on a Rachel Roy-related photo at some point), 13 of them have private accounts. Their follower counts range from 0 to 10,000. Their profiles include descriptions like “makeup artist,” “fashionista” and “vegetarian.” Two users had hundreds of followers but no photos at all. One person agreed to talk before writing back, “Actually no.” Another, with whom I spoke on the phone, left me with more questions than answers. The others I communicated with were an mix of men and women in their 20s and, seemingly, sane.
The latter characteristic surprised me—sort of. I’ve long been aware of how passionately the Beyhive reacts if anyone so much as blinks at Beyoncé wrong. I was curious how they’d treat me, an inquiring non-celebrity. But as I attempted to suss out their identities, I found more than a few people willing to talk to me—despite hitting some walls, and receiving some adolescent retorts. When asked to comment for this piece, for instance, one user—who I messaged through Instagram Direct—shot back, “I don’t know u.”
Fair enough. Theoretically, no one knows anyone on the internet, which is a wasteland of unaccountability that’s helped birth a nation of anonymous Beyoncé fans who’ve earned a reputation as the most aggressive fan base (some say bullies) out there.
An abridged list of past subjects of Beyhive rage—through an attack strategy familiar to many as “dragging”—includes Amber Rose (targeted for asking why Beyoncé doesn’t get called a slut), Rita Ora (for getting too physically close to Jay Z in a photo), Keyshia Cole (for criticizing Beyoncé’s single “Bow Down”), Kid Rock (for having the audacity to imply Beyoncé isn’t an icon), Keri Hilson (for dissing Beyoncé in a song and then shading her in a red carpet interview), TLC’s Chilli (for jokingly banning the terms “Bey, B or Queen Bey”) and Karrueche (for making a crack about Blue Ivy’s hair on TV). More recently, they went after Rachel Roy’s daughter Ava Dash, just for being Rachel Roy’s daughter.
The Beyhive is everywhere, but since Instagram is the main source of the latest attacks—and since Instagram’s messaging option is less restrictive than Twitter’s—I set my sights there.
Among the more reasonable users who responded to me with sincerity in the course of this investigation was a 20-year-old who preferred to remain anonymous. The standard millennial collage of selfies, cat pics and nature photos appear on her Instagram page, which has over 200 followers and isn’t private.
Her YouTube account, which is linked in her Instagram profile, contains videos showing her face, meaning she appears to be someone who’s not disguising her real identity. In our back-and-forth messages, she comes across as a young, articulate Beyoncé fan who decided to one day comment on a Rachel Roy photo—one of the many IG users who only posted a series of bee and lemon emojis with no words. (A note that some of the Instagram messages I’m posting here have been cleaned up for grammar when necessary.)
In a response to me on Instagram (she later declined to speak over the phone), she wrote, “It’s mob mentality if you look at it. The Beyhive wanted to let her know what she did was wrong. So I showed my support for Beyoncé by commenting.” Amusingly, she says that on a “0 to 10 scale of 10 being psycho fan, I’m a good 5.”
This hedging suggests she (I’ll call her Non Psycho Fan) draws a line with her protectiveness. “I love Beyoncé, but I’m not someone who obsesses over her every second of the day. I just listen to her music and enjoy her performances. I think the emojis are decent. It gets to be too much when the fans start to attack [Roy] on her appearance, outfit, her career, or comparing her to Bey,” she writes. “Also, they’re too much when they constantly tweet, or follow Beyonce’s every move/location. They make their entire lives to be about her, which is ridiculous. Go outside, enjoy the sunshine.” When I ask if she ever thinks she’s gone too far herself, she responds, “No.”
The Beyhive is but the largest among the many online fan collectives with impressively lame nicknames. Ed Sheeran has his Sheerios. Lady Gaga has her Monsters. Rihanna has her Navy. In 2012, I edited a feature for VIBE about superfans titled “Crazy Stupid Love: When Twitter Stans Attack.” The writer, Tracy Garraud, shadowed a Rihanna fan named Airy who considered herself part of Rihanna’s Navy, ran a Rihanna fan account, had a framed photo of Rihanna in her home and told the writer, “Rih is family.” Essentially, Garraud wrote, these fan armies were serving as unpaid extensions of a record label’s marketing department.
While the majority of the Beyhive’s most zealous commenters are most likely “genuine” in the way that teenagers genuinely do what they do, Azealia Banks (always the skeptic) made a conspiratorial claim on Twitter, suggesting Beyoncé’s team is deploying spam bots to attack accounts, which is a compelling thought. Non Psycho Fan suggested to me, “the ones who actually type out comments are more than likely just trolling. But the ones with emojis are both fans and bots.”
So fans and bots here are indistinguishable even to one of the Beyhive’s own. This is the power of this particular kind of fan-spamming: they can say nothing, get attention, hurt some feelings, even tarnish a reputation—all without Beyoncé ever publicly scolding them, or people even being able to tell if they’re real.
The fans I spoke with generally consider dropping a few emojis to be relatively harmless. Another 20-year-old from L.A. who posted emojis on a Roy photo told me, “Sometimes they go too far when people start to give harsh threats or just say really nasty things in general. I feel like the simple 🐝🍋 says enough.”
A simple 🐝🍋 isn’t really too crazy. What we’re dealing with, for the most part, is slightly nasty behavior that gets overwhelming en masse. This is teen territory, or at least young people’s territory. But the internet allows for an extension of teen tactics: the Beyhive, of course, is not just teens.
One male fan, aged 32, described himself to me as a huge and “fanatical” Beyhive member. He has over 2,000 followers on his Instagram page, which features selfies and boxes of motivational quotes. He appears to be a working professional and says he attended Beyoncé’s Formation Tour show in Miami. Mr. Formation decided to comment on Rachel Roy’s page—posting bee/lemon emojis and a remark that implied Roy brought this on herself—after seeing a blog post about Roy’s ill-advised “good hair, don’t care” comment and her subsequent statement in which she detached herself from the Becky rumors.
“At the time she posted her selfie, Beyoncé’s album was the biggest thing trending on social media. And everyone wanted to know who Becky was and if everything was OK with her marriage because of the emotion in the lyrics,” he wrote to me, in defense of his Roy comments. “Given the history she has, she didn’t use better judgment when posting the good hair don’t care comment. If you’re going to be messy then just be messy, don’t backtrack and act as if you didn’t intend it to come across that way.”
Sure. But at what point does anyone stop and ask themselves, “What is the point of all this?” Ganging up on people on behalf of your fav is fun, and if anything, the Beyhive’s plan is to make famous people reconsider coming after Beyoncé, to whom the fans feel deeply connected. But do these fans think terrorizing social media pages makes a difference?
“My point is she should use better judgment,” Mr. Formation says of Roy. “I want her to know that I didn’t think it was cool to try to backtrack after she made that decision. Beyoncé didn’t refer to her directly or even mention her. She pulled herself into the drama. But I’m sure she learned a valuable lesson.” (That lesson is: don’t do it to yourself.)
Still, he doesn’t condone the comments that he thinks border on abusive. “Some of the beehive’s behavior is very reckless and disrespectful,” he writes. “When I found out they were attacking her daughter, I was really heartbroken because I felt like she has nothing to do with that. At that point I stopped commenting and it even made me think about my own actions and how they would negatively affect her life. I agree with [Rachel’s] comment when she said bullying is not acceptable. However, I also believe it’s important that people are authentic. If you are being messy just say you were being messy. We are all humans and we all make mistakes.”
There seems to be a divide between rational, protective Beyhive members and the rabid ones who take their comments to the extreme. From what I’ve seen, the highly trafficked Beyoncé fan accounts—@BeyonceLite on IG, @TheBeyHiveTeam on Twitter—restrain from this type of fandom. Some of these fans even get tips from Beyoncé’s team (@TheBeyHiveTeam tweeted an exclusive about Lemonade a month before its release), so perhaps they don’t want to risk losing that privilege.
An Instagram user with the handle @Queen_bey267, who identifies as 25-year-old and male (he has 13 followers), commented under a photo of Roy’s daughter Ava: “You look just like yo thot momma.” When asked what motivated him to post that, he responds on Instagram, “I felt that if we don’t say something she would want to be like her mother and I’m a Beyonce stan.” I ask whether he’s regretted any of his comments, and he admits: “The only attack I felt bad for participating in was the accidental Rachel Ray thing.” (Some fans, including @Queen_bey267, went after food guru Rachel Ray, mistaking her for Rachel Roy.)
I ask @Queen_bey267 if he’s willing to hop on the phone, so I can get some sort of verification that he’s a real person. When he answers, the voice sounds not at all 25—more like a teen. I tell him I have more questions and his responses, like the Instagram messages, are brief. I ask if he wonders who the other people are who leave negative pro-Beyoncé comments on celebrity pages and he says, “No.” I ask if he thinks about how the Beyhive victims are affected by these comments and he says, “Not really.” The phone call is, for me, a strange, Catfish-like experience.
Another IG user, @Slay_Hive, who claims to be 24, proved hard to crack, even with low-level sleuthing on my part to try to determine an identity. At the time I messaged, the account had 0 followers. Comments from the same username appear on Beyoncé-related posts on sites like Rap-Up and That Grape Juice (and there’s an inactive Twitter account), but that could be a coincidence. After an initial request for comment, @Slay_Hive messages back: “Well i’m a huuuugeeeee Beyonce fan. She’s just ammmazzinggg. I love everything about her. About Ava, well her mama should’ve kept her mouth shut regarding the whole Becky hair thing. You play with the hive you gonna get stung. 🐝🍋.”
This response sounds both rehearsed—like something a person thinks a Beyoncé fan might write—and totally genuine. The user adds, in response to whether the Beyhive attacks can get out of hand, “Well it’s a jungle out here. But we have to put down people hating on our queen. Idc if its their child. People have to be shown you don’t mess with Queen Bey whatsoever.”
I ask, “Do you think some of the comments are just people trolling who are not actually Beyonce fans and do you yourself consider it to be trolling?”
The response: “No. I would kill for Beyonce. She is my idol.” It continues:
Me: Would you be willing to get on the phone to discuss?
Me: Fair enough.
Me: “I would kill for Beyonce” is a bit drastic, right? What do you think of people saying Beyonce wouldn’t encourage these types of social media attacks from her fans?
Slay_Hive: Idc what they think. Everyone has their own opinion… All i did was send emojis of lemons and bees i didnt send death threats.
It’s hard to tell what kind of a person I’m dealing with here.
On the trollish end of the spectrum are the people who swarmed Roy despite not being particularly zealous fans of Beyoncé. They simply seem to take pleasure in being part of a trend. Instagram user @That’s.king, who has over 5,000 followers and a private account, left lemon emojis on a photo Roy posted of a model wearing clothes from her line. “Actually I’m not a Beyonce [fan],” he writes me over DM. “She’s actually a disgrace to society by brainwashing the masses and being used as a puppet to push agendas but I thought it was funny so I left a few lemons.”
He claims he commented more for the thrill of the ride. “For Beyoncé to have millions of followers [who] attack Rachel Roy proves what they’re capable of. Imagine if she criticized someone else who doesn’t take negativity lightly and commits suicide,” he writes, seemingly (and dispassionately) intrigued at this idea. “But Beyoncé never told her fans to attack her. That shows how much power [celebrities] really have and influence over the masses. These people praise them as Gods. They don’t even read the bible but they wake up to Beyoncé so yeah it’s kind of fucked up.”
I ask if he feels bad for participating. “No because all that’s irrelevant,” he responds. “I just focus on my relationship with Jesus.”
Roy called her Beyhive situation bullying, which my colleague Jia Tolentino disagreed with last week in an essay: she thoughtfully explained why comparing online harassment to bullying is a faulty argument, writing that bullying “describes a situation in which powerful people intimidate a less powerful person about something that the person in question cannot control.”
Is the Beyhive powerful? As a unit on the internet, sure. In the real world, hardly. More precisely, Roy and the other celebrities targeted by the Beyhive are being harassed—a situation that’s increasingly common on the internet, which can only be weathered with any kind of ease if you have people in your own corner. More than the frustration of seeing a load of Beyhive comments on your page, it’s celebrities’ social reputation that’s most at stake—the potential of a permanent association with a Beyhive dragging. The ones with thick skin, who place little to no value in that metric, are able to withstand a Beyhive attack. (Amber Rose and Rihanna, for example, are doing just fine.)
Then there are those like Roy’s daughter (an innocent bystander) and Keri Hilson, who never recovered from dissing Beyoncé. In 2013, Hilson talked about sinking into depression and tweeted, “You have no idea what your hateful words could do to someone’s spirit. Years of verbal abuse from strangers all day long. Enough is enough!” And: “I’m here for MY FANS! I’m stronger than you imagine, but waking up/goin to bed to your ugliness is just TOO MUCH.”
A London-based Twitter user, @RunThaWorld with 28K followers and “#Beyhive” in their profile, responded to Hilson’s tweet at the time with: “You stupid bitch. You dissed Bey for no reason, accept the consequences and apologise to her. Stop being a fucking pussy.” Three years later, Hilson continues to get dragged.
By my reading, it’s a conscience—or something like it—that separates the normal fans from those melodramatic trolls, to whom Beyoncé is so mythic they’ve stopped thinking of her as real. This aura of untouchability spreads to anyone in Bey’s orbit. An Instagram user with around 40 followers who’s 26, based in L.A. (L.A. Bee, I’ll call her) and chose to remain anonymous, writes to me: “I think it’s wrong to attack [Rachel’s] daughter. But when her mom makes comments that make her seem she’s ‘that girl,’ that’s what happens. Celebrity kids will have to live with their parents’ bad choices.”
Kolby, a 20-year-old from Missouri whose Instagram page isn’t private, left emojis on Roy’s photo and responded to another IG user who @’d him “can you not” with: “u better call Becky w/ the good hair.” He did it, he tells me, because “it’s a pretty money trend that the Beyhive has been doing haha. I’m a huge Beyoncé fan,” he writes. Asked if he feels protective of Beyoncé, he responds, “A little bit. Sure.”
“The Carters are really powerful people so it’s not too smart to get in their firing line,” he adds. “And I don’t think it’s too far, it’s simply just comments on an Instagram post. It’s not like we’re sleeping with her husband 😏.” His profile bio pridefully reads: “rachel roy has me blocked on insta.”
To some Beyhive members, Beyoncé’s choice to remain silent in public and abstain from interviews further justifies the attacks. They feel obliged to be her missing voice. “True or not true [Rachel] was asking for it and the beyhive is giving it to her,” L.A. Bee writes. “Beyonce is a private person that would never go on rants or Twitter war with r.r. or ppl she doesn’t like. No need, the beehive is here.”
It’s true. While Rihanna or even Taylor Swift are liable to scrap on social media, Beyoncé will not engage. She’ll likely never expound on the infidelity narrative of Lemonade in public. But the Beyhive can do this, by extension. They can take on the aggression they presume Beyoncé is suppressing, and bring her story into the world of petty Instagram where the mortals of this world live. By sheer force, persistence and teamwork, they’ve successfully become a part of their favorite celebrity, an invisible and unofficial arm of her agenda.
Beyoncé, in turn, shows them nothing but gratitude, aware for sure of their intensity but never critiquing their methods. “I have the most insane, incredible, loyal fans,” she told MTV in 2013. “I hope they know that they are part of everything I do.”
Illustration by Bobby Finger, source images via Shutterstock