Vol. XXIX No. 9 — September 1951

The Bee Hive

It may be that a greater number of diversified explanations have been written of other Masonic symbols, but they would be difficult to find.

The average initiate probably pays less attention to the bee hive as a symbol, than to many others, largely because it seems to him such a commonplace.

In the Transactions of various research lodges, in books of symbolism, are pages and multiplied pages about bees and bee hives, connecting them with many religions, mysteries, systems of thought, historical personages, monuments, poems, ideas and philosophies, all, apparently, with the idea of impressing someone with some reason why the beehive should be a Masonic symbol and why we should read it as meaning the thousand and one things it has meant in the past rather than what Masonry intended it to mean.

Writers have considered the bee hive as Masonry’s recognition of the dignity of labor. Another has found in it lessons about the relationship between labor and capital. Others find in it a teaching of immortality, a symbol of the resurrection. Some think of it in terms of building and architecture and science and mathematics and geometry. The bee hive is considered by some to be the symbol of a lodge, and learned discussions have been published about large and small lodges with reference to the fact that when a hive gets too full of bees, a lot of them get them a Queen of their own and go swarming off to form a new bee colony. Pundits read social lessons, lessons in government, and lessons in morality from bees in a hive, and all this, and much more beside, are then saddled on Masonry and the candidate who has just received his Master Mason Degree is expected to read, understand, and believe all this from seeing a picture of a beehive and hearing one, two or three monitorial paragraphs about it!

With those devoted students, researchers, authorities, historians and busy bees in the hive of Masonic study no one should quarrel, for each is doubtless contributing of his best. But in the interests of clarity, here consider the bee hive for what the ritual says it is, and not what a number of brethren who have learned what it meant to others have thought it might, could or should be to Masonry.

“The bee hive is an emblem of industry.”

What is “industry”? Railroads, steel plants, automobile factories, packing houses, ranches, bus lines?

Is “industry” that virtue which causes a man to work diligently and hard, for long hours, swiftly, eagerly, happily?

Or is “industry" what it was in an older day, the cooperative effort of many people towards a common end? The earliest known mention of the beehive as connected with Masonry seems to be in Jonathan Swift’s Letter from the Grand Mistress. Herein the allusions are as follows:

A Bee hath in all Ages and Nations, been the Grand Hieroglyphick of Masonry, because it excels all other living Creatures in the Contrivance and Commodiousness of its Habitation or Combe; as among many other authors Doctor MacGregor now Professor of Mathematicks in Cambridge (as our Guardian informeth us) hath learnedly demonstrated; nay Masonry or Building, seemeth to be of the very Essence or Nature of the Bee, for her building not the ordinary way of all living Creatures is the generative Cause which produceth the young ones (you know, I suppose that Bees are of neither Sex).

For this Reason the Kings of France, both Pagans and Christians, always eminent Freemasons, carried three Bees for their Arms, but to avoid the Imputation of the Egyptian Idolatory of worshipping a Bee, Clodovaeus, their first Christian King, called them Lilies, or Flower-de-Luces, in which, notwithstanding the small Change made for Disguise Sake, there is still the exact Figure of a Bee. You have perhaps read of a great Number of Golden Bees found in the Coffin of a Pagan King of France, near Brussels, many ages after Christ, which be had ordered should be buryed with him, in Token of his having been a Mason.

The Egyptians always excellent and Antient Free-Masons paid Divine Worship to a Bee under the outward Shape of a Bull, the better to conceal the mystery; which Bull, by them called Apis, is the Latin word for a Bee; the Enigma of presenting the Bee by a Bull consisteth in this, that according to the doctrine of the Pythagorean lodge of Freemasons, the souls of all the Cow-King transmigrate into Bees, as one Virgil, a Poet, much in favour with the Emperor Augustus, because of his profound Skill in Masonry, hath described; and Mr. Dryden has thus show’d


Four Altars raises, from his Heard he culls
For Slaughter, Four the fairest of his Bulls,
Four Heifers from his Female Store he took,
All fair, and all unknowing of the Yoke;
Nine Mornings thence with Sacrifice and Prayers,
The Gods invok’s, he to the Groves repairs.
Behold a Prodigy! for from within
The Broken Bowels and the bloated Skin,
A buzzing Noise of Bees his Ears alarms,
Straight issue thro’ the Sides assembling Swarms, &c.

What Modern Masons call a lodge was for the above Reason by Antiquity called a Hive of Free-Masons. And for the same Reasons, when a Dissention happens in a lodge, the going off and forming another lodge, is to this day called SWARMING.

Hunt thought this was published in 1724. Crawley thought it was published between 1727 and 1730.

The precise date is not important; anywhere soon after the formation of the grand lodge in 1717 would seem to indicate that the symbol was then well known to Masons.

If one accepts the hypothesis that Sir Christopher Wren was “grand master” then the bee hive was probably a symbol of Masonry as early as 1677. A monument commemorating the Great Fire in London was designed by Sir Christopher Wren; the carving on one face was credited to Gabriel Cibber and Cibber was, according to Anderson, one of Wren’s grand wardens. Prominent in the carving is a bee hive. In a description of the monument, published in 1708 (before the formation of grand lodge) the bee hive is described as “the unknown emblem of industry.” In the same carving is represented a square and compasses.

It seems reasonable to believe, therefore, that at the time of the formation of grand lodge there was a bee hive in use as a symbol, emblem, allegory, allusion or in some way a part of speculative Masonry.

The symbols of speculative Masonry were never inventions made on the spur of the moment by some man or men. They were derived from the work done, from the plans made, from the building problem which was of the immediate here and now, from the prospects of a finished building in the future.

The square was an emblem by virtue of its importance as a builder’s tool, not because some man had the brilliancy of thought to say “let it teach morality.”

Without a square a building could not successfully be erected. If walls were to stand, the stones had to be square. If walls were to be capable of supporting a roof, they had to be straight. If the building was to have proportion and be beautiful it could not run off here and there at odd angles.

The square, then, as symbol, had to represent something, teach some idea which was essential to the construction of the house not made with hands. It had to be necessary to character, as the implement was essential to the building.

In China thousands of years ago the square was an emblem of the teaching of the Golden Rule expressed in negative form. That was not good enough for the builders of the cathedrals. If their square was to mean anything beside its use as a tool, it had to mean something important, vital, and essential to upright God-fearing manhood. Hence, by a process as natural as it was inevitable, the square became the emblem of morality, in which one short word is included all the philosophy, teachings and beliefs of man developed at and to his best.

The bee hive did not come into Masonry because some man read a teaching of immortality out of the bees and the honey in the carcass of the lion which Samson killed! It did not come into Masonry because any great men had used bees as parts of their coats of arms. It did not come into Masonry because the Koran said that God spoke to the bee and said “Provide for thyself houses.”

The bee hive came into the Masonic system of teaching because it symbolized that which the cathedral builders did and the way they did it, and for no other reason, and all the torturing of ancient reference, all the learned papers and all the inspired flights offancy which attempt to make the bee hive something more than it is, greater than it is, better than it is, cannot alter the fact. Incidentally, it is difficult to believe that nine out often of the suggested “reasons for the beehive” make it any more impressive than it is as a builder’s emblem.

The bee does not go off by himself and make a few cells of wax in which to store honey. He works hard and tirelessly as one of a great swarm and he works for the swarm.

In that tiny body is knowledge of strength of materials and economy of their use which no mathematician can better. The hexagonal cells store the greatest possible amount of honey with the least expenditure of wax. The comb is double, with a wall between and the cells are so placed on either side of this wall that they reinforce it and each other, putting the least strain on the division yet gaining the greatest strength for the whole.

The bee works in complete cooperation with his fellow bees. There are no dissensions in the hive; bees protect the Queen (which lays the eggs), refuse admittance to enemies, build walls, gather honey, construct and labor and live in a society ruled by law and order and all to a common end.

The Freemason of today is not the descendant of some ancient mystery, some religion of a day which dawned before the pyramids were built or the secular heritage of some half forgotten philosophy. For some curious reason known only to scholars, many devoted Masons have sought for a hundred and one origins of the Fraternity rather than admit that the Speculative of today is the great-great-great and-so-on great grandchild of the men who built the great cathedrals of Europe.

Those builders, like the bees, worked as a unit to do one particular piece of work. They were workmen of many kinds; stone cutters, carvers, wall layers, mortar mixers, flying buttress builders, roofers (tilers), tool makers, etc., but as a unit they were a band of builders erecting one building for one use. No man worked for himself; he worked for and with his fellows for their and his objective.

They worked under difficulties which would completely floor a modern builder. They had no otherpower than rope, leverage, beasts, weights, muscle. There were no factories to produce parts which they could assemble — nothing in a cathedral was “pre-fabricated.” They had only men to do the work and if it were successfully to be done, every man had to do not only his part but all his part; had to labor to the best advantage of the job and the building and take pride in the whole though he personally accomplished but the smallest detail.

No one man could then or can now build a cathedral. Three kings could not have built King Solomons Temple. It required many men, all with one mind; many hands, all with a great degree of skill, many determinations all welded into one determination.

How should such an organization not have seen in the bees and the hive an emblem of industry, using the word in the sense of united effort to a common end, single-hearted devotion to one aim?

In the hive were bees — man workers contributing each his might to one great result.

Here was engineering of the highest skill.

Here was devotion to an idea, pursued with complete absence of selfishness.

Here was cooperation, coordination, friendly intercourse in an isolated community with a common home, a common end.

It was inevitable that the bee hive become a symbol for those builders who made symbols out of their tools, practices, surroundings because they could not do otherwise.

Hence the emblem, so casually mentioned in the Master Mason Degree, so soon passed over, so quickly forgotten, becomes something great and revered, a symbol to be cherished, a teaching to be venerated because of its perfection of fitting with the aims, ideals and practices of our forefathers.

The Masonic Service Association of North America