There is little to investigate, one might think, about Utah's status as "the Beehive State." Most Latter-day Saints are familiar with the symbol of the beehive in Church history-- industry, thrift, cooperation. On October 11, 1881, an article in the Deseret News explained, “The hive and honey bees form our communal coat of arms... It is a significant representation of the industry, harmony, order and frugality of the people, and of the sweet results of their toil, union and intelligent cooperation.” And that is that. One might rightfully suppose.
The beehive has been emblazoned on newel posts, bus tokens, business logos and etched windows throughout Utah for many generations. This is not surprising. But why is the hive on the doorknobs of the Salt Lake Temple? What has industry, thrift, and cooperation to do with the holy ordinances that take place therein, and why did the founders of the Church take care to include them in this structure?
I believe that the beehive means exactly what our pioneer forebears told us it means. But like other religious symbols, it may mean a bit more to one who would dig a little deeper.
The honey bee was a sacred symbol in many ancient cultures. Renowned historian Hugh Nibley notes that in an ancient fable, Adam, upon being banished from the Garden of Eden, brought out with him "the olive, the vine, and what else do we need? The most necessary things. I can think of some other things, like the fig. Eve brought only one thing. She brought swarms of bees, because they would establish the new world. This is the mystery. The mystery is the bee."
He later on gives his interpretation of a symbol on Joseph Smith's papyrus facsimile 2, figure 6. He believes it to be a variation of "Samson's Riddle":
"When Samson is a young adult, he leaves the hills of his people to see the cities of the Philistines. While there, he falls in love with a Philistine woman from Timnah that he decides to marry. The intended marriage is actually part of God's plan to strike at the Philistines.
"On the way to ask for the woman's hand in marriage, Samson is attacked by an Asiatic Lion and simply grabs it and rips it apart, as the spirit of God moves upon him, divinely empowering him. This so profoundly affects Samson that he just keeps it to himself as a secret. He continues on to the Philistine's house, winning her hand in marriage.
"On his way to the wedding, Samson notices that bees have nested in the carcass of the lion and have made honey. He eats a handful of the honey and gives some to his parents. At the wedding-feast, Samson proposes that he tell a riddle to his thirty groomsmen (all Philistines); if they can solve it, he will give them thirty pieces of fine linen and garments. The riddle is, "Out of the eater, something to eat; out of the strong, something sweet." It is a veiled account of his second encounter with the lion. The Philistines are infuriated by the riddle. The thirty groomsmen tell Samson's new wife that they will burn her and her father's household if she does not discover the answer to the riddle and tell it to them. At the urgent and tearful imploring of his bride, Samson tells her the solution, and she tells it to the thirty groomsmen.
"The groomsmen come to Samson and correctly answer his riddle. He tells them that, without the help of his wife, they would never have discovered the answer. Then proceeds a series of attacks, as Samson and the Philistines avenge themselves of one another's offenses, thus wreaking havoc upon the Philistine nation. Samson's bride is consequently taken from him and given as a wife to the best man."
So, as earlier stated, Dr. Nibley likens the symbol in this facsimile to Samson's Riddle: "Out of the eater, something to eat; out of the strong, something sweet." States Nibley, "Out of the corpse came the strength, which was the honey. That was a universal saying throughout the old world. This is the marvelous thing of it... the bee actually does this."
An ancient Egyptian tradition holds that 'lady Night' (or Egyptus,) "crossing the desert to Egypt, brought bees with her. Her sons, the kings of Egypt, have the title B-ty, 'he who belongs to the bee,' and she was Night, whose name means 'bee.' The purpose was to start life from scratch in the new world, and it is the bee, the great pollenizer, [who does this]. In the first place, we're not going to have any crops unless we have bees. They say, unless we have any bees, we're not going to have any apricots. They [the bees] have to make the green things grow. That's the first thing they do. The purpose is to start life from scratch in the new world. [The bee] pollenizes the fields and the woods to bloom and the vegetable life to feed the world. But he also, at the same time, supplies quick energy in the most delicious food to get the human race going again."
So the bee was a sacred symbol in Egypt-- so sacred that the people rarely drew a picture of it. In the first dynasty, King Narmer united Upper and Lower Egypt and combined the crowns of the two nations into one-- the now-recognizable double crown of Egypt. The crown of Lower Egypt, or Deshret crown, was also known as the Bee crown, and had a curled proboscis extending from it, symbolic of the bee's feeding appendage.
Nibley continues, "The bee uses... what is useless, what is perished, what is dead and gone, what nobody wants. (As I say, the Egyptians talk an awful lot about this.) Whatever it produces from, it makes that that is useful, whether it's wax, or royal jelly, or honey, or fertilization, and so forth. It takes the useless remains and the wreckage of a world and turns it into something useful.
"Man does the exact opposite. For their purposes, they take only what is wholesome and healthy from nature...and what do we turn it into? Garbage and sewage. That's what we turn out; that's our big production.
"Now, don't think the Egyptians weren't conscious of that. They certainly were... Hundreds of times we read on a person's tomb: 'I will not eat filth. I will not step in it. I won't smell it. It is an abomination to me.... I can't stand it. I want to eat the pure white bread of the gods and drink pure water, but while I live on earth, I must live in the garbage dump.' The Bee crown is always referred to as the 'the worker of great miracles'—-that's the bee crown, the red crown with the antenna of the bee on it.
"Figure 6, as I say, is Samson's riddle: Out of the killer comes strength. The lion has killed everything. The lion of the desert, or the face of the lion, is the very symbol of death, and out of that comes the strength, the honey. The bee brings it out."
Knowing this changes my perspective about this beehive symbol in pioneer history. The Mormons were driven from place to place, and whatever swamp they landed upon they made blossom and flourish, just like honey bees. On their trek West, the Mormons carried beehives with them.
While visiting Nauvoo, Illinois recently, a tour guide in a blacksmith shop showed us this wagon. He explained that the pioneers would unplug the hives during the day and plug them again at night after the bees had returned. With these bees, carried much as in the legends of Eve and Egyptus (and also the Jaredites of the Book of Mormon,) they made the desert to blossom as a rose. Like the Egyptians, rather than using the bee itself as their primary symbol, they adopted a related symbol-- the noble beehive.
Mortality, we must conclude, is made for consumption, decay, and death. The bee is the symbol of immortality: earth renewed; healing balm from rot; mankind raised from the earthen grave and made incorruptible; resurrection, exaltation, eternal increase and endless enlightenment.
This new information even enriches the standard beehive symbolism. Does not the Lord instruct us to spend our strength in those activities that make creators of us? Even in our unfortunate, corruptible form, he puts in our paths tools and instructions that will lead us to become like him-- one who does not 'consume upon lusts' or eat up, or devour, but one who builds up, dresses and keeps, conserves, and protects. One who, with the materials this earth provides, creates a little something that sweetens this existence, builds up brotherhood and enduring love, and nourishes something between himself and his Father that he can bring with him into eternity.
"For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man." Moses 1:39
"Honeybee Amongst Lavender," by Valerie Littlewood
"Figure 6 of Facsimile 2," Hugh W. Nibley. Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute