From ancient times, bees and their beehives have been important symbols and elements in almost every culture on Earth. The very term “industry,” from an ancient perspective, referred to the employment of a very large number of men, tens of thousands in some instances. Individually, each man had his set task and together they accomplished much more than any one person could possibly do. Thus the beehive is that perfect emblem of the power of industry where the group works together toward a common goal.
According to Horapollo, an ancient Egyptian scholar and grammarian, and attributed author of the Hieroglyphica, a set of two books explaining early Egyptian hieroglyphs, “Of all of the insects, the bee alone has a King.” While the bee’s society is matriarchal, this particular gender reference may refer to the Egyptian pharaoh, King Menes, founder of the First Egyptian Dynasty, who bore the title of “Beekeeper” (as did all subsequent Pharaohs). The bee was seen as a divine symbol in ancient Egyptian society, bridging the living world and that of the dead.
References to bees can be found in Hindu mythology where they also represented our strongest bond to the material world. It was believed that eating honey would ensure good health and fortify one’s spirituality.
Like other cultures, the Greeks held the bee sacred and featured it prominently in their mythology. Honey was believed to be the “food of the gods” and that bees were a part of the everyday lives of their gods. Zeus was said to be raised by bees, earning him the title, Melissaios or bee-man.
3rd century Greek philosopher, Porphyry of Tyre, believed souls descended to earth in the form of bees from the moon, lured to a life on earth with promises of honey and other delights. Ironically, honey was also a symbol of death and offered to the gods. This dualistic nature of honey is no coincidence — both the honey and its maker, the bee, represent the cycle of existence. As the bee returns to the hive, so the spirit returns to the Maker. Their tendency to suddenly appear made them become symbols of death and rebirth, in some ways representing the immortality of the soul.
In Roman times, the emperor and philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, coined the phrase, “What is not good for the swarm is not good for the bee.” There’s a great deal of wisdom in this statement that we can see in Freemasonry: The good of the Craft stems from the satisfaction and industry of the individual workman.
In Jewish and Christian legend, bees have had various meanings, representing industry, fidelity and virtue. According to the Book of Luke, the first food eaten by Christ after his resurrection was honey (Luke 24, 41-43): “Jesus said, have you got nothing to eat? And they offered him a piece of broiled fish and a honeycomb, which he ate.”
By several accounts, the bee was associated with the sound that High Priests in the Temple of Solomon heard while in the presence of the Ark of the Covenant. It is said that Aaron, brother to Moses, heard the sound of bees humming while hearing the secret name of Yahweh in the presence of the Ark. In fact, there is some thought that hives are a type of Ark and thus also take on the similar representation of regeneration that the Ark does.
Bees reportedly made a humming noise at midnight when the birth of our Savior took place. As a result, ancient beekeepers would visit their hives on Christmas Eve, in the hopes the bees would be humming or “singing,” a sign of good luck for the coming year.
The bee is altruistic to a fault. St. John Chrysostom, the 4th century Archbishop of Constantinople, known for his eloquence and public speaking, wrote, “The bee is more honored than other animals, not because she labors, but because she labors for others. Indeed, the bee works unceasingly for the common good of the hive, and obeys without question what appears to be an inequitable hierarchy.”
Another organization that is commonly — and mistakenly affiliated with Freemasonry — is the infamous Illumanati (or Order of Perfectibilists), a conspiratorial secret society founded by the German philosopher Johann Adam Weishaupt in 1776. Two years after establishing the Order, Weishaupt proposed renaming the order to the “Order of the Bees,” complete with changing their secret keywords to those with a bee-theme. This proposal may have been likely due to his new Masonic affiliation (he was initiated into the Masonic Lodge, “Theodor zum guten Rath” at Munich in 1777) and our Fraternity’s affinity for the ideals of the bee society organization and purpose. Weishaupt was also a student of the Greek mysteries, which are heavily laden with bee symbolism.
The goals of the Order was a single world government (which some interpret more ominously as world domination) and it’s organization consisted of a network of spies and counter-spies acting independently yet connected to each other in a cell-like relationship structure, with each cell reporting to unknown superior. From this time forward, one can see the beehive as a metaphor for control of the masses or proletariat, a word in Latin referring a working class in Roman society who’s only contribution was their offspring. The definition seems especially appropriate considering the typical beehive can contain thousands of newborn bees.
More directly, for the simple beekeeper, the bee was well respected: She worked industriously, tirelessly and cleverly on behalf of her master, asking nothing in return. In other words, the beekeeper was indebted to the bee and had an attitude of gratitude toward them.
Beekeepers would often speak to their bees, according to folklore, telling them things they thought necessary, especially births, marriages and deaths. Bees were thought not to be able to prosper in an atmosphere of anger or hatred. In fact, there was a fear that upset bees would swarm and leave their hive, leaving the beekeeper alone without his hive to care for if news was not whispered into their hives. For this reason, the phrase “telling the bees” came into being and bees were thought of as messengers of the spirits, being able to pass messages to friends and relatives who have passed into the afterlife.
The bee is an important symbol of Freemasonry and was especially common in Masonic drawings and documents of the 18th and 19th centuries. The beehive has been adopted by Freemasonry as the appropriate emblem of industry, a virtue taught which says that a Master Mason “works that he may receive wages, the better to support himself and family, and contribute to the relief of worthy, distressed Brother Master Masons, their widows and orphans.” Very bee-like, indeed.
The beehive is represented on our instructional trestleboards and in the Third Degree lecture it symbolizes industry or work, whereas bees — and Brothers — are never idle, instead acting in concert toward a common goal, a virtue all Masons should practice.
Bees have an instinctive reverence for authority, a trait important in the teaching — and very structure — of Freemasonry. No bee dares leave the hive to swarm to another location unless the queen has gone forth in front of them and claimed the rank of first flight for herself. In many ways, we can see the similarity in our Organization with its ideology of respect and privilege, but also structure of order.
While man was created independent of all other beings, his dependence on society means he depends on other men for protection and security. He is an individual creature who’s personal contributions to a greater society are critical to the survival of society as a whole. Freemasonry, then, is like a queen bee whose workers have built a hive and now search for the nectar of choice flowers to bring back and turn into honey for the nourishment of all.
According to Proverbs 6:8, we are instructed to “go to the bee and learn how diligent she is and what a noble work she produces; whose labor kings and private men use for their health. She is desired and honored by all, and, though weak in strength, yet since she values wisdom, she prevails.”
Could this reference to the bee’s individual weakness refer to inadequacies of the single man, who, when combined with others of like mind and given direction and purpose, find success in their undertakings? This interpretation of the bee and her hive mirrors that of the individual Mason and the promise of success he enjoys as a part of his Masonic organization.
The instruction goes on to say, “The bee hive is an emblem of industry, and recommends the practice of that virtue to all created beings. Thus, was not man formed for social and active life, the noblest part of the work of God; and he that will so demean himself, as not to be endeavoring to add to the common stock of knowledge and understanding, may be deemed a drone in the hive of nature, useless member of society, and unworthy of our protection.”
Again, a reference here to hard work, dedication and the practice of a life under the direction of our Deity. Failing to live a life by these means — perhaps a life as a non-Mason — risks being branded worthless by society and certainly not worthy of being a Freemason.
Like the bee that collects nectar from many flowers and turns it into nourishing honey, we should endeavor to do the same, taking whatever we can and transform it through our labor into a superior element, useful to us and the Craft. As Masons, we should imitate the bee, work for and with others, take pride in our work, be industrious and obey the rules of our society. Failing this, we risk becoming useless members of our society. Very un-Masonic as well as un-bee like.