Verses from Surah al-Nahl (68-69)

[68] And your Lord inspired the bees100 that, `you take (unto yourselves) houses101 among the mountains, trees, and what they build.102


100. Razi writes: A simple trigonometric exercise shows that no other shape works better than a hexagon, so far as space economy is concerned. This shape is built effortlessly, neatly, and to great accuracy, by the bees that make thousands of cells in the shape of hexagons in their hive. In contrast, human beings would need the help of several measuring instruments to achieve same level of accuracy. Obviously the design and the working have been placed in the intuition of these insects, which seems to have been referred to as, literally, revelation to it. Another wonder is that one of them, the largest, performs the functions of a chieftain. It is noted that when the chief gets tired of the hive, it abandons it by flying off and the rest follow him to the new destination.

However, when music is played near the hive, it returns to its old hive. These, and many others, are signs of Allah’s instructions embedded into the bee’s mind (Razi).

Note that by the term “chieftain” Razi perhaps meant the Queen bee (Au.).

The Sufis hold, however, that the textual “awha” is in the literal sense of “He revealed” since, in contrast to other class of scholars, they believe that insects are communities and have their own prophets, messages, law, etc. (Alusi).

It is of interest to note that even Imam Razi, usually quite advanced on the contemporary scientific knowledge, as well as Alusi, employ masculine noun to describe the bee as well as the queen, whereas the Qur’an employs feminine form. But they can be excused.

Even Shakespeare used masculine form for the bees. That except for a couple of male drones, the rest of the thousands in any hive are all females, led by a queen, is a piece of information that only very recent research has yielded: obviously, another proof that the Qur’an could not have been written by Prophet Muhammad (Au.).

101. Majid quotes: “‘The apartments which the bee builds are here called “houses” because of their beautiful workmanship and admirable contrivance which no geometrician can excel’ (Bdh).”

102. That is, what the humans build – a suggestion perhaps that the bees are primarily human friendly, building their hives right in the vision of the humans, in contrast to other insects that conceal their nests (Au.).

[69] Then feed on all manner of fruit103 and tread the paths of your Lord made smooth.’104 There issues forth from its bellies105 a drink of diverse colors wherein is a relief for the people.106 Surely, in that is a sign for a people who reflect.107


103. One of the lexicon meanings of “thamar” is “trees” (Alusi).

104. The allusion by the textual “zulal” (the path) made easy, or smooth), is to the fact that the bee leaves its hive, flies through vast spaces of wilderness, crossing valleys and mountains (in search of flowers), and yet comes back to its hive without having lost the way (Ibn Kathir).

105. Imam Razi is of opinion that the bee regurgitates honey from its mouth. On the other hand, Qurtubi is not sure if the honey is regurgitated from the mouth or comes from their rear. He says that the ancient Greeks tried to ascertain by keeping the bees behind a glass, but then it refused to work. Modern research however, confirms that the Qur’an was right in using the term “stomach” (batan, pl. butun). The bee has two stomachs: one for normal food that goes through the intestine and is fully digested, and another, a special one, which is like a pouch within the stomach where honey is collected, enzymes added, the flower nectar half digested, and then honey regurgitated into the comb cells for drying and storage.

106. Allah (swt) did not say, “al-shifa’” rather, “shifa’un” which implies that it is a cure for some people, for some disorders, and not for all the people, for all kinds of disorders (Ibn Kathir).

It is said that a man went up to the Prophet (saws) and complained that his brother was suffering from diarrhea. The Prophet told him to administer him honey. The man came back saying it had increased. The Prophet told him to give him some more honey. The man came back to say that his diarrhea had worsened. The Prophet said, “Allah spoke the truth and your brother’s stomach has lied. Give him honey.” The man did it, and the person recovered (Ibn Jarir). The hadith is in Bukhari and Muslim; and the medical people have explained that, perhaps, the man had a lump of undigested food in his stomach, which the honey attacked and initially caused increase in diarrhea, but finally cured him of it (Ibn Kathir, Alusi). Or, perhaps, the Prophet knew by revelation that the man would be cured by honey, otherwise, as we know, Imam Razi and others add, honey is not good for diarrhea. In fact, its large quantity is known for causing diarrhea.

The Sahihayn also report that the Prophet (saws) liked sweets and honey. Bukhari has another hadith which reports him as having said, “Healing is in three things: cupping, (removal of blood), in honey, and in branding with fire (cauterizing), but I forbid cauterization for my Ummah.” However, another report of similar nature in Ahmed starts with the words, “If there was any healing, it would be in three things …” Another report in Ibn Majah, of a good chain of narrators, names the Qur’an and honey as curing agents (Ibn Kathir).

Qurtubi states that there were many of the Salaf who treated themselves with nothing but honey. ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Umar was one of them. He applied honey even to wounds and swellings. And, many of them were cured thereby. Now, how to explain this when Allah Himself did not mean that honey is a cure for every ailment? The answer, Qurtubi says, is that a strong faith yields results that weaker faith does not. (After all, modern medicine is quite aware of Placebo effects: Au.). Ibn al-`Arabiyy has said, “He whose faith is weak and whose habits (of mind) overrule religious instructions, will follow the words of medical men.”

Nevertheless, for ordinary men, the established fact remains that honey is not a cure for every ailment. Indeed, this is proven by no less than hadith itself. The Prophet said, “Every ailment has a medicine. So, when the right medicine is administered, the sufferer is cured by Allah’s will.” The words of another hadith are: “People! Use medicine. Allah did not send a disease but also sent its cure, except for old-age for which there is no medicine.” There are several other ahadith that speak of this or that thing of the Prophet’s contemporary world as holding cure for the diseases of his time. In other words, the Prophet (saws) spoke of things other than honey as curing agents. Indeed, Ibn ‘Umar himself used to give medicinal potions to his children when unwell, cauterized himself when struck by facial paralysis and blew charms on his ailing children.

Commentary from Qurtubi ends here.

The rest of the world too, ancient or modern, has not missed on the usefulness of honey. Majid quotes and comments: “‘To the ancients honey was of very great importance as an article of diet … It was valued by them also for its medicinal virtues’ (Ebr. XI, p. 716).

‘Pliny gives a long list of bodily disorders for which it was believed to be an efficacious remedy. The Greeks regarded a diet in which honey was the chief element as especially efficacious in securing longevity’ (ERE, VI, p. 770).’

And to come from the ancients to the modern:

‘Vienna – Dr. N. Zaiss, a leading physician here, says honey is the best healer of wounds and superior to all ointments. He has treated several thousand cases with honey, and has not had a single failure. It sooths pain, hastens healing, and acts as an antiseptic. It is also highly effective with burns and carbuncles’ (The Sunday Express, London, 28th April, 1935).”

On the lighter side, it is reported that one of the Shi`ah said to caliph Mahdi (d. 775 A.C.) that by the term “bee” the allusion is to Banu Hashim, from whose stomachs issue forth (“honey”, that is), knowledge. One of the exasperated courtiers quipped to a general laughter, “May Allah feed you on what issues forth from their stomachs” (Zamakhshari, Qurtubi).

107. Apparently, there has not always been a “fruitful” reflection on the bee for, as Majid comments: “The bee, said Virgil, has in it something of the Divine nature; it was the sacred symbol of Ephesus, and was considered the type of the goddess. ‘The priests of Ephesus Arteris were called “king bees”; the princesses of Develer, Prosperine, and the Great Mother were known as “bees” … In European folklore the bee is everywhere sacrosanct.’ (ERE, I, p. 504).”

The Bee

While on the topic, we might as well say a few things about bees and their life.

A bee can be of any size between the tiny 2 mm long one, to the 20 mm. giant bee. There are some 20,000 species of them. Although there are exceptions, the bee is primarily a social insect. That is, it lives out its life as a community, rather than as individuals. Sometimes they can number a million in a single comb but a normal colony may consist of 40-60,000 bees. And they are highly organized. They are led by a queen, the largest of them. Every comb has a single queen. The queen’s function is no more than to lay eggs. She lives for about five years, mates only once in her lifetime and can lay as many as a million eggs. She lays as many as 2,000 eggs a day, about one every 43 seconds.

The queen, however, is discreet about the gender and caste of her offspring. After mating, which happens in flight, (preceded by release of a smelly substance that attracts the drones), she keeps the sperm in a sack where the liquid can remain alive and viable in a fluid medium for several years. During the process of laying eggs, the queen determines the sex of the offspring. If she decides on a male (drone), she does not fertilize the egg. But, if she intends a female worker bee, she fertilizes it with the sperm in store as the egg passes down the oviduct.

She lays eggs one in a cell. Thereafter, the worker bees take charge of the cell and the developing young in it. The queen, who lives in special apartments, identifies herself in a hive by releasing what is called as the “queen substance.” This secretion is passed along by certain workers in minute portions to all hive inmates. This secretion gives every hive its identity by giving it a specific smell. Further, it inhibits ovary development in the young larvae. But when the queen gets old, or sick, or flies out for good, then in consequence the substance is no longer produced and substitute queens are immediately bred from the young larvae. If two or more queens emerge from the larvae, they will fight it out among themselves. These queen bees have a special curved sting which they use to kill each other. The one that manages to survive after the general fight, takes charge.

The queen normally leaves the hive when it gets overcrowded. When she goes, she takes half of the worker bees with her. To make the task easier, all the departing workers are provided with honey as they move out. The old hive is relinquished to a newly hatched queen. Initially, the swarm moving out may crowd around a branch while the scouts search for a site for a new hive. When one of the scouts has located a suitable site, it comes back and performs its dance to indicate the distance and direction of the site has found.

The scouts investigate one another’s sites. At a signal, the entire swarm travels to whichever site seems best. The queen follows. A colony consists mostly of female workers. Males are few and hang around doing nothing more than being fed by others. They do not have a long tongue like the female bees have and so cannot feed on flowers by themselves. Therefore, they depend on the female bees to feed them. Their only job is to mate with the queen when the time comes. Nonetheless, they might never mate with the queen in their hive. With the release of the pheromone by a queen bee, of any hive, they fly out hoping to mate. In autumn, when food becomes scare, the female bees stop feeding the drones and drive them out of the hive to die.

The female worker bee attends to all other tasks. That involves nest building (with the help of wax that they themselves secrete), feeding and brooding the young – from the time the egg is deposited into a cell to the day they emerge as adults. The feeding is done with a special substance produced by the bee called the royal jelly.

From the day of deposit, until after 21 days, when the young finally emerges, the egg goes through various stages of larva and pupa. A specific area is allotted in the hive and cells are marked where the eggs are deposited and bred. However, in autumn, when the young have emerged, the same cells are cleaned and used for storing honey.

The defense of the nest is also the job of female bee. And, of course, it is they who gather nectar and process it to make honey. They also attend to keeping the hive clean and tidy, and, on warm or cold days maintain a certain temperature. For example, on a hot day they might bring in drops of water, sprinkle all over the hive and fan across the place to keep it cool. Whatever the outside temperature, hive temperature is very precisely regulated, otherwise the eggs would be lost. The female bee also act as guards at the entrances, identifying each bee with the help of a chemical that exudes a certain kind of odor, and let in only those that belong to the hive. Finally, they attend to the repair of the hive. E.g., if cracks appear (because of weight), the bees produce a special glue (bee glue) with which they fill the crack.

The division of labor between the female bees themselves, is also done in a highly organized manner. Their age plays a fundamental role in what tasks will be assigned to them. The tasks match physiological changes in the bee’s body, as they grow after emergence from the larvae.

Capable of seeing blue, yellow and ultraviolet rays, the bee can fly out to long distances in search of food, at an average speed of 20-25 km/hour. She can fly forward, sideways, backward and hover over a flower while it collects nectar. Her sorties can take her as much as 10 km. from the hive. She uses perhaps both the sun and the earth’s gravitational force to determine her way up and back.

Once a source of food is discovered, the scout-bee returns to the hive, loaded with the nectar, and passes the information about the source, the distance, the quantity and quality, with the help of the famous “bee dance.” The figure she makes during the dance, the direction she takes in the hive, the manner in which she wags her tail, and the sound she emits during it, communicate information to others about the new source. The others do not wander around as they leave the nest. They fly straightaway in the direction of the new source. While they collect the nectar, they also gather pollen in pollen sacks attached to their hind legs and deposit them into other flowers. They are thus the most important pollinating agents for the plants. The pollen is also consumed by the bees and are an important source of fats, proteins, vitamins etc. The nectar brought in is regurgitated and handed over to other bees, or deposited into a cell. The worker bees then add some enzymes to it to convert it into honey. The cell is left open for the water to escape, and the residue becomes thick honey. The cell is then sealed.

Honey consists almost entirely of sugars, but it also contains a number of minerals, B-complex vitamins, and amino acids. Honey is easily assimilated in the human body because it is a predigested ingredient: bees temporarily store the nectar in a special part of their stomachs, where it is partially digested. The bees’ digestive fluids contain enzymes that transform the nectar into honey. Bees later regurgitate the honey into the cells of their honeycomb, where the honey dries and thickens. To produce about 1 pound (0.5 kilogram) of honey requires 25,000 trips between the hive and flowers. In its whole life-time, a little less than a year, a bee collects about 45 gms. of honey. A pound of honey contains the essence of about 2 million flowers.

Finally, a bee performance! This writer was shown a couple of combs taken out recently from a bee farm in Saudi Arabia and preserved in the refrigerator. They were preserved because when honey was removed, everyone was amazed to see that the bees had carved the word ‘Allah’ in Arabic, in letters about 8 cm long, 1 cm wide and 5 mm deep. And, the script was so clear that a child wouldn’t have any difficulty in reading it as Allah.

Apart from the fact that the farm owner happened to be an extremely religious person, to an engineer’s eye it was apparent that, given the extreme softness of wax, it would have been impossible for human hand to achieve the engraving so absolutely neatly. In fact, slight touch with the finger was distorting the wax. How could any human have done it by hand or machine? (Au.).

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