Vol. XXXV No. 12 — December 1957

Symbol of Industry

This symbol, referred to in the lectures accompanying the Master Mason Degree, is one of the most curious and interesting that Freemasonry has taken from older rites and philosophies, and poses some puzzles that no Masonic student has yet been able to solve.

Why a beehive was selected, by whoever did first choose it as a Masonic symbol, instead of an ant hill, has never been explained.

The hive — or skep — is a man-made structure. In Masonic illustrations it appears as made of straw or grass. In modern practice, beehives are of wood. But always the hive is the result of the labors of human hands. Bees, as “emblems of industry” do not make the hive. They make the honey and the comb.

The ant, however, makes its own home. The bee, without a hive, uses a hollow tree. It would seem more natural that an “emblem of industry” should be something made by those who are “industrious” rather than a housing provided by others for industry therein to be demonstrated.

Freemasonry originated in cathedral building. Here the industrious workers made the structure, for others to use, but the cathedral was constructed by men for men. Bees do not construct hives for bees. The ant and the ant hill might readily have seemed more appropriate as symbols of Masonic work, than the hive made by man in order that he might take advantage of the industry and skill of the bee to provide him with sweets.

A further puzzle of the symbol is the fact that at one time it was used in connection with the first degree; now it is universally a symbol in the third. Whence the change, and why?

Apparently the earliest mention of the beehive in Freemasonry is to be found in a quotation attributed to Dean Jonathan Swift, famous for many reasons but probably best known for his satire Gulliver’s Travels.

Swift lived 1667-1745 and was apparently at the height of his powers during and shortly after the formation of the Mother Grand Lodge (1717). His A Letter from the Grand Mistress which first mentions the beehive as a Masonic symbol was probably written between 1724 and 1730 — the earlier date is the more favored among antiquarians. It is too long to quote in its entirety but these paragraphs are especially explanatory:

A Bee has in all Ages and Nations been the Grand Hierogliphick of Masonary, because it excells all other living Creatures in the Contrivance and Commodiousness of its Habitation or Combe; as among many other Authors Doctor Mc.Gregor now Professor of Mathematicks in Cambridge (as our Guardian informs us) has Learnedly demonstrated; nay Masonry or Building seems to be of the very Essence or Nature of the Bee, for her Building not the ordinary Way of all other living Creatures, is the Generative Cause which produces the Young ones (you know I suppose that Bees are of Neither Sex. ). . .

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

If the beehive had been an ecclesiastical symbol, its presence in Freemasonry might the more easily be explained. Bee occurs only four times in the Great Light; honey is referred to more than half a hundred times. From cathedrals and their building Freemasonry gets ashlars, trowel, square, compasses, level, plumb; Preston put the “five orders of architecture” into our lectures, and of course early Freemasons naturally included in Masonic “work” such matters as lodge, gavel, tyler, eavesdropper, cowan. Our “point within a circle” has a geometrical and tool-measuring significance (although it is also an ancient phallic and religious symbol) and cornerstone is common in almost all buildings of stone.

But the bee and the beehive are almost entirely absent from ecclesiastical architecture. There is a carving in Ely Cathedral in which a kneeling woman upholds an empty beehive; Ruskin’s Seven Lamps of Architecture describes a beehive carved over a window at St. Lo, France; Toledo Cathedral is said to have a carving showing a bear and a beehive — and of course it is well known that bears are extremely fond of honey.

But these few instances are certainly not sufficient to account for Freemasons accepting a man-made hive as “an emblem of industry” of bees, and, by inference, of human workmen.

It is ironic that the Craft that did not obtain the beehive as a symbol from ecclesiastical sources, should have given it to a church — “given” only in the sense that the Craft venerated the beehive long before the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) adopted it as one of their principal symbols.

The Mormon history includes the Nauvoo, Illinois, episode, in which the grand lodge of that state first granted and then revoked the charter of a lodge composed of Mormons. Doubtless that experience was at the root of Mormonism taking so much from Freemasonry, basing its Temple ceremonies upon the degrees, and embracing so many Masonic symbols, including the beehive.

It is also to be noted that but few lodges in the United States have taken this symbol for their names; Bee Hive Lodge No. 909, Chicago; Bee Hive, No. 393, Lawson, Missouri; and Bee Hive No. 184, Omaha, Nebraska, are all.

Much is made by bee lovers and students of their activities, of the geometrical perfection of the six-sided cells of the honeycomb. It is a curiously interesting fact that no other shape could provide so much storage space for honey with so great a strength of a normally soft and weak material — wax — as the six-sided cell. Had it been Preston who brought the beehive into Masonic symbolism, the reason might easily have been found in these “natural geometers” but the beehive appeared in Masonry long before Preston was born (which was in 1742).

A noted English Masonic student, George W. Bullamore, in the Transactions of the famous research lodge, Quatuor Coronati, in 1923, published a scholarly, lengthy and extremely detailed study of the beehive without getting to the heart of the mystery as to when it arrived in Freemasonry or who was responsible for its inclusion.

He collected a large number of instances in which the beehive appears Masonically in other forms than in lectures. Some of these are as follows:

The beehive is the emblem of the Lodge of Emulation No. 21, but existing records throw no light on the subject of the lodge adopting it.

The beehive and three bees are carved with other emblems on a chair used as a warden’s chair by Scientific Lodge No. 88 at Cambridge, England. Crossed keys below the hive suggest that it was originally a treasurer’s chair. The beehive also appears on an old carved chair of lodge Perfect Friendship No. 376, Ipswich, and on an old chair at Barnstaple.

It occurs with other Masonic emblems on the binding of an old Bible formerly the property of the pre-Union lodge Attention No. 572. This Bible is now used by Philanthropic Lodge No. 107, King’s Lynn.

An interesting jewel, origin unknown, was exhibited at Quatuor Coronati lodge. This jewel is of silver and is engraved “I. Euclid 47,” and is supported by a silver bee from what is probably the original hanger formed of silver lace.

Another design in which the bee is placed on a jewel hanger is the Calcutta medal of Lodge Industry and Perseverance No. 109. On a silver medal struck to commemorate the founding of Lodge Jonathan of the Pillar at Brunswick in 1744, the reverse portrays a beehive with bees.

On a chart in the possession of Quatuor Coronati lodge, five beehives are shown arranged symmetrically on a triangular stand. A similar arrangement is to be found on a Masonic chart at Ipswich. Both charts were issued in 1755.

The illustrations to Masonic Clothing and Regalia, by W. Bro. F. J. Crowe, show that the apron of the Grand Orient of France and also that of the Grand Orient of Hungary have the beehive prominently portrayed in the center. In another example of the Grand Orient of Hungary the beehive is shown on the flap surrounded by a motto in cipher. The translation of the cipher reads “Labor omnia vincit” [work conquers all].

In Masonic Emblems and Jewels, W. Hammond, is an illustration of an apron in the possession of the United Grand Lodge of England. This is described as an “Antient” apron on which are “the emblems of the seven degrees.” Among these emblems is the beehive.

An “Antient” apron formerly used in Royal Clarence Lodge No. 68, Bristol, prominently displayed this symbol.

An interesting apron on which the beehive is depicted is said to have belonged to Captain Curry, initiated into Masonry at Sydney, N.S.W., between 1824 and 1828. A photograph of another apron, said to have belonged to Richard Barnes, initiated in Lodge of Unity No. 71, Lowestoft, on August 29, 1822, shows a beehive. Lodge of Unity worked under a “Modern” Warrant, dated 1747.

In England certain old tracing boards show the beehive sometimes as a part of the first, sometimes a part of the third degree. Bullamore makes much of the question as to why the beehive was once associated only with the first degree, later with the third. The wandering of the symbol from degree to degree is not too difficult to comprehend when we consider the looseness of Masonic work in early days of Freemasonry in England, the absence of anything even approaching a standard ritual, and the difficulty of inter-communication between Masons living miles apart.

What seems more difficult to account for is why the symbol was at one time refused to Apprentices. Had it then another meaning than industry, and was that meaning only to be disclosed in the Master’s Degree?

The discovery of new evidence in more old documents may perhaps explain; now it is one of the minor mysteries of the Craft.

The wording of the explanation of the symbol in American Freemasonry begins and ends with similar words in the oldest English ritual extant that mentions the beehive. Just how it crossed the Atlantic, and what American lecturers, ritualists, and grand lodge committees altered and added to the old ritual could well form the subject of a much deeper study than these few pages can encompass.

The results of such an investigation would be, perhaps, more to the point than the reams that have been written about the appropriateness and the meaning of the symbol. Symbolists have found fertile ground for fevered imaginations and have set forth at length that the beehive is not only an “emblem of industry” but is also concerned in teaching the dignity of labor, the development of character, work as a means to salvation, connections between the Craft and labor and capital, immortality. They have tied it up with Samson’s riddle — “out of the eater came forth meat and out of the strong came forth sweetness” (Judges 5:18) - made of it a symbol of resurrection. They have traced connections between Freemasons and mathematicians, architects and artists; quoted the writers of antiquity on the bee as proofs that they had a Freemasonry and made of the beehive a symbol of a lodge (without a grand lodge, unless a collection of hives might be so thought of!). They believed that the beehive taught orderly organization, the need for working tools, government, service, and so on to the limit of imagination!

The reading into any Masonic symbol of a moral, ethical, practical, religious, political, scientific and/ or philosophical meaning is anyone’s privilege; here is no quarrel with him who finds the whole story of Freemasonry in the beehive, if that is his pleasure and such thoughts satisfy him.

But the hard-headed student who looks for facts instead of fancies still puzzles himself over these questions.

When did the beehive come into Freemasonry?

Who was responsible?

What was its original meaning?

Why did it wander between degrees?

Why was it preferred to ants and the ant hill especially in view of Proverbs 6:6—8: “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways and be wise: Which having no guide, overseer, or ruler, Provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest.”

Research lodges may, some day, provide the answers! Until then, the beehive will continue to be a peg on which symbolists and students can hang at least “industrious” discussion!


The Masonic Service Association of North America