They’re everywhere—on the state highway signs, on the Capitol building, on the state flag, on manhole covers. Dozens of Salt Lake businesses begin their name with “beehive:” Beehive Bail Bonds, Beehive Auto, Beehive Elementary School, Beehive Credit Union, Beehive Title Insurance, Beehive Glass. Insurance companies, scooter sellers, clothing stores—all use the logo of a beehive, which is actually a coiled straw dome, called a skep, that hasn’t been used to house bees for over 100 years. There’s a beehive fountain in front of the Brigham Young Academy; the Beehive Society is the oldest honor society on the University of Utah campus and each summer Salt Lake magazine rolls out accolades in our Best of the Beehive issue.
No wonder visitors ask, “Where are the bees?” But I’m surprised how few native and resident Utahns even know the reason Utah is called “The Beehive State.” It has nothing to do with the proliferation of Apis mellifera, the scientific name for the western honey bee. The state ranks 24th in the U.S. for honey production.
Ancient symbolism — “The beehive has been used as a symbol for thousands of years,” according to historian Mark Staker, an expert on early Mormon anthropology at the LDS Church’s Family History Center. “The Bible refers to the ‘Promised Land’ as ‘the land of milk and honey.'” Of course, there were no honeybees in the ancient Middle East. “The European monks whose scriptoria kept The Bible in print before Gutenberg came along had no way of knowing that Biblical honey was most likely date honey and had nothing to do with bees. So, they incorporated bees and the cooperative life of the hive into early Christian symbolism,” explains Staker. Freemasons also used the bee and beehive as symbols of cooperative work, and the images are found in early American art and literature. “Many of the founding fathers were Masons, and America had become the new ‘promised land’ of opportunity,” says Staker. Many early Mormons were also Masons, including one particularly important Mason/Mormon: Joseph Smith. The Book of Ether in The Book of Mormon (books within books) tells the story of the Jaredites, a tribe that lived at the time of the Tower of Babel in the Old Testament. According to The Book of Mormon, the Jaredites made a miraculous 344-day voyage across the ocean to North America. They brought with them the “Deseret” which means “honey bee” in the nomenclature of The Book of Mormon.
The State of the Hive — When Brigham Young and the Latter-day Saints arrived in Salt Lake Valley in July of 1847, Young chose the name “Deseret” for their new home, and the beehive as its emblem, symbolizing the kind of cooperative work that would be required to make the desert bloom. Images of bees and beehives—the traditional skep, five of which the Mormons brought with them on their trek—were used in much early church construction embellishments. Notably, on the interior and exterior of the Salt Lake Temple and, famously, on Brigham Young’s own Beehive House, which is crowned with a carved bee skep. Newell posts, doorknobs, windows and all bore the emblem of a beehive. Mark Twain commented on the Utah beehive symbol in his book on the 1860s American West, Roughing It, saying, “The Mormon crest was easy. And it was simple, unostentatious and it fitted like a glove. It was a representation of a Golden Beehive, with all the bees at work.” On October 11, 1881, an article in The Deseret News explained the symbolism: “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.”
Of course, you can’t go too far with the etymological comparison or you raise awkward implications. What about drones? What about the queen bee? “The meaning of the beehive shifted a little as Brigham Young’s Deseret became a territory, then a state,” says Staker. “It lost some of its religious connections but the community connotations continued.” The beehive still serves as the logo of some Church-related organizations, but it’s come to symbolize the whole state of Utah. When Utah territory became a state in 1896, it retained the beehive symbol in its state seal and on its flag. The state adopted the beehive as its official symbol in 1959, designated the honeybee as the state insect, and even named the “beehive cluster” as the state’s astronomical symbol. Utah is known as “The Beehive State,” and businesses continue to name themselves after the antique skep, many of them without knowing what a bee skep is, or where the bees are. But even without them knowing it, the beehive has become an everyday icon that links present-day Utahns—Mormons and non-Mormons—with their pioneer past.