A "Bee"-rief History : The Beehive and Utah
The beehive, its connection to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the association with Deseret, and its role in Utah have long been romanticized and mythologized, with meanings and importance assigned in retrospect.
Following divine inspiration to restore God's true church, Joseph Smith formally founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on April 6, 1830, in Western New York. Members of the Church became known as Saints. They adhered to the teachings of the Book of Mormon, a book of ancient scripture translated by Joseph Smith that recounts God’s dealings with a people in Ancient America.
The Saints frequently moved, due to religious persecution. In 1839, the majority of Saints settled in Nauvoo, Illinois, forming a socio-religious community. The first use of the beehive informally affiliated with the Church, occurred here in 1841 when Joseph Smith organized the Nauvoo Agricultural and Manufacturing Association. Created to set prices and establish standards, the association issued and sold stock certificates. Each one had a beehive centered at the top. While these stock certificates featured a beehive, there were connections made to religious beliefs or practices. Instead, it was used within the traditional context as a symbol of agriculture and industry.
After the murder of Joseph Smith in 1844, the Saints were forced to leave Nauvoo. Under the new leader of the Church, Brigham Young, the main body of members traveled westward, settling in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847.
In 1849 Brigham Young formed a committee to petition the U.S. federal government charter the Salt Lake valley and surrounding land as a territory, called “Deseret.” The name comes from a verse in Ether, a section of the Book of Mormon “And they did also carry with them deseret, which, by interpretation, is a honey bee” (Ether 2:3).
The reason for the choice remains uncertain. Religious scholars suggest it was a way for Brigham Young to remind the Saints that God once directed a chosen people in the Americas. The territorial petition failed, but the “State of Deseret,” led by Brigham Young, unofficially governs the area. Organizations throughout the Salt Lake Valley adopt the name “Deseret.” However, there was no association between “Deseret” and the beehive image.
In 1850, U.S. President Fillmore signed the act establishing the Territory of Utah and appoints Brigham Young as territorial governor. In 1854, he built the Beehive House, an executive house that for unknown reasons he decorated with beehives on the inside and outside. Seeing the beehives and knowing Brigham Young still plans for the Territory of Utah to become the State of Deseret, people connected Deseret with the beehive. Soon, beehives turned up everywhere as a highly symbolic image. Some view it as a symbol of protest against the Federal government for its interference. For others, it symbolizes cooperation and willingness to support the state’s creation as the place to build God’s Kingdom on Earth.
The connection between the beehive and the concept of the State of Deseret weakened in 1872 following federal rejection of statehood. However, this decrease first started when new people moved to the territory with the Transcontinental Railroad’s completion in 1869. Finally, after six applications, the federal government granted statehood on January 4, 1896, under the name “Utah” not “Deseret.”
Leaders of the new state embraced the beehive and rejected Deseret in both name and concept. This was made apparent with the adoption of the beehive on the state flag and seal. No longer the symbol of the “State of Deseret,” the beehive was once again viewed in the traditional sense of work. The inclusion of “Industry” on the flag solidified this connection.
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The Bees of Deseret
While the honeybee is Utah’s state insect, it is not native to the area. It is not known precisely when honeybees first arrived in Utah. The published journal of pioneer Thomas Bullock gives the earliest account of pioneers traveling with honeybees. Written while camped at Winter Quarters in Nebraska, Bullock’s entry dated May 29, 1848, reads “587 Souls travelling in 179 Wagons with…3 Stand of Bees.”