The expression “spelling bee” is circuitously related to the industry and sociability of the honey bee!
The term ‘bee’ has been used in the US to mean a ‘gathering’, either for work, pleasure or competition, since the mid 18th century. The first such usage was the term ‘spinning-bee’, as in this example from The Boston Gazette, 1769:
“Last Thursday about twenty young Ladies met at the house of Mr. L. on purpose for a Spinning Match; (or what is called in the Country a Bee).”
“Gatherings” became “Bees” by quite a roundabout route. The Middle English word for a prayer was a ‘bene’, from which we derive words like ‘benefit’. This migrated to ‘boon’, with the meaning of ‘a favour granted’. The English Dialect Dictionary, 1905, records the country term ‘boon’ as meaning “voluntary help, given to a farmer by his neighbours, in time of harvest, haymaking, etc”.
Migrants from England to the US would have taken the term ‘boon’, which was also spelled ‘been’ or ‘bean’, with them. Communal activities were an essential ingredient of survival in frontier America and the word would certainly have been called on there.
The imagery of the social and industrious nature of honey bees was sufficient to change the word ‘beens’ into ‘bees’.
Many of the activities where people congregated to undertake communal work became known as bees of one sort or another – ‘husking-bees’, ‘quilting-bees’, ‘barn-raising-bees’.
A less pleasant form of assembly was the hanging or lynching bee. A reference to such was made in The Fort Wayne Weekly Sentinel in August 1874. The paper reported a story of an incident in Maysville, Indiana, in which a case of mistaken identity almost resulted in a lynching:
“And he came very near being the chief attraction at a Lynching Bee.”
However, the best-known ‘bee’, and the one that remains in common use, is the ‘spelling bee’. Such events were originally called simply ‘spelling-matches’ but, being social gatherings, they came to be referred to as ‘spelling-bees‘ by the early 19th century.
And we still call them spelling bees today!