For Merriam-Webster’s website, Peter Sokolowski details the history of spelling bees and the etymology of the term itself:
This kind of spelling duel was carried over to America, and Benjamin Franklin himself recommended the practice in 1750, with the addition of a prize given to the victor: “a pretty neat Book of some Kind useful in their future studies.”
A pretty neat Book!
Although the phrase “spelling bee” provides all sorts of opportunities for delightful apian puns, some of the other names people have used sound a bit more badass. Who wouldn’t want to vanquish an opponent in a “spelldown”?