Bee Inspired

By Dr. Basma Abdelgafar
Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies

Have you ever wondered why Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) uses the word Shura to refer to the prescribed and preferable decision-making process among believers? Did you know that the literal translation of Shura is to “extract honey from its sources? In fact, the link between honeybees and optimal collective decision-making is perhaps one of the most fascinating discoveries in nature, and what’s more interesting is the similarity between the information processing design in a primate brain and in a swarm of honeybees when making choices.

Research by scientists in the US and UK points to the lessons that humans can learn from the collective decision-making process of honeybees. I will refer in particular to the recently published work, Honeybee Democracy, by Thomas D. Seeley.[1.Seeley, Thomas D., Honeybee Democracy, Princeton: Princeton University Press, (2010).] For anybody with even a basic knowledge of the Qur’anic injunction of Shura this is groundbreaking research from a socio-religious perspective, not to mention policy, management, and all fields where collective decision-making is a central feature. Today, we are more fully able comprehend why Allah swt refers to honeybees, as opposed to any other species or even, and perhaps more intuitively, to the historical decision-making process by humans. In short, honeybees appear to have the best collective decision-making process from which we can draw lessons and for which it appears our mental systems are naturally designed.

There are two key suwar (chapters) in the Qur’an that are of concern here, namely An-Nahl (The Bees) and Ash-Shura (The Consultation). In Surat An-Nahl we are reminded of several aspects of creation including,

  • The importance of understanding the unity of design; that Allah guides us through His signs in nature as well as revelation. Both require the application of our intelligence to sophisticated degrees to fully comprehend.
  • That just as physical signs guide humans to Allah (plants, planets, stars, mountains), there are likewise spiritual signs intended to complete our learning experience.
  • The chapter also includes an account of how Allah inspired the bee to build its home in hills, trees, and in the habitations made by humans. He further inspired the bee to eat from all the fruit, produce, flowers and plants, (i.e. nectar) and to “follow the ways of your Lord laid down [for you].” (Qur’an, 16:69)

In Surat Ash-Shura, we are given a lengthy introduction to inevitable disagreements among people. This is not presented as an adverse condition of humanity but rather as a natural outcome of diversity and indeed, as we learn from the bees, a necessary condition for successful collective decision-making. From this perspective, it is not our differences per se that are critical but rather the emphasis on our common interest. It is in the spirit of that common interest and the unity of design that as humans we must employ our diversity for our common good. It is important to note that ‘our’ in this context is not directed at Muslims exclusively but all people who respond to their Lord, establish prayer, conduct their affairs by Shura, and give charity from what Allah has granted them to help make the lives of others smoother.

The link between the two surahs is beautiful. As noted, the literal definition of Shura is the “extraction of honey from its source.” In order to understand this in the conduct of our affairs we have to gain a deeper understanding of honey production. As Seeley notes, “honeybees are sweetness and light – producers of honey and beeswax…” Likewise our decision-making processes and their outcomes, should be just as beneficial, “sweet” and illuminating for mankind.

Many scholars have written about the interpretation of these signs in great detail. I will not delve into these examinations and debates here. Suffice it to say that Shura has been examined as both a principle as well as a decision-making process from governance to all spheres of life. Much literature can be found on the relation of Shura to democracy and governance more broadly. Some studies offer a striking understanding of Shura as we now understand it from studying honeybees. Others, however, fall short when making exceptions concerning its mandatory and binding nature, scope of use, and the overwhelming power of the leader. It is my opinion that Shura is mandatory having been stated immediately after the injunction to respond to Allah and to pray. It is not limited to politics but may enrich all spheres of life concerned with optimal decision-making. Moreover, the decisions emanating from this process, if properly performed, should be binding which will – and should – naturally limit the authority of the leader in any given situation. All these principles are evident in the decision making-process of honeybees from which we are commanded to learn.

For over sixty years scientists have been studying this remarkable insect. Not unlike the condition of believers, a swarm of honeybees functions best as an integrated whole. In order to survive, bees work cooperatively to perform a multitude of life supporting roles including “ingesting and digesting food, maintaining nutritional balance, and circulating resources, exchanging respiratory gases, regulating water content, controlling body temperature, sensing the environment, deciding how to behave, and achieving locomotion.” (Seeley) But it is the process by which bees select a home (as alluded to in the Qur’an) that is most fascinating. For a bee colony, choosing the right home is a matter of survival. The criteria therefore cannot be left to fate or a process of trial and error. Indeed, the bees are divinely inspired to search for and choose a home that best meets their  criteria including (1) cavity (home) volume, (2) entrance height and (3) the direction it faces, (4) entrance size, and (5) presence of combs from an earlier colony. These criteria ensure adequate storage space for honey as well as protection from adverse weather and predators. It is in the common interest of a bee swarm to choose the best available site. These criteria are thus used to build consensus.

Honeybees use a form of “direct democracy” to choose their new dwelling where individuals participate directly rather than through representatives. It is important to note that a honeybee colony is not ruled by a queen as is sometimes commonly thought. The queen is at the heart of the colony but her role is primarily to lay eggs to maintain the strength of the workforce. Through a special secretion she ensures that no other queen bees are reared, thus maintaining her dominion. She does not, however, like a modern-day leader, dominate the decision-making process in any way. Thus, when a colony becomes overcrowded in the late spring and early summer, and a third of the worker or scout bees set out to look for a new home, a process of Shura is initiated.

The process starts when several hundred bees fly off in search of a sizable area of land and comes back to present the whole group a dozen potential sites. Because of the sheer number of bees involved in this search, they can acquire and process information from multiple sources simultaneously. All prospective sites are reported dutifully, increasing the possibility that the best option will be included. The group then stages an open competition (through dancing) among the proposed alternatives. Each bee proposes one possible option through a dance that reflects the extent to which that option meets the group’s criteria. Each listener must make an independent assessment of each proposal and decide whether to accept or reject it. No scout bee blindly follows another; each bee supports a site only after scrutinizing the site for itself and concluding independently whether to support it. These endorsements often recruit more supporters for a particular option. Support for poorer sites gradually fades as the bees stop advertising for them. Each bee thus remains a highly flexible participant in the decision making process.

The competition is intense but constructive since the bees remain focused on the ultimate goal of choosing the best site in accordance with inspired criteria. As information is shared, more and more bees are attracted to the better option. This process ultimately leads to complete agreement regarding the swarm’s chosen site.  As soon as a quorum, that is, a certain threshold in support of a particular option is reached, the bees will start warming up for implementation. During warm-up, consensus building continues since by the time the bees are ready for take-off, the group is in full agreement to successfully guide the swarm (of several thousand bees) to their new destination. This information-processing scheme guarantees an optimal trade-off between decision accuracy and decision speed.

Interestingly, recent science has demonstrated that primate brains and honeybee swarms (and ants) are faced with the same basic problem when choosing between different options based on a body of noisy information that is widely dispersed. (Seeley) In both primate brains and honeybee swarms, sensory units transmit information about the outside world to the inner system. The processing of this information involves a competition between mutually inhibitory accumulators or integrators of information, so that accumulating evidence in support of one option decreases with increasing strength support for other options. A decision is reached when evidence in one integrator reaches an adequate threshold. Thus, a human brain built of neurons and a swarm of bees both have the means for robust and optimal decision-making in a conceptually similar way. And so, to draw lessons from the decision-making process used by bees, may not be as far-fetched as some might have originally considered.

In fact, Seeley presents five key principles that humans can adopt for making more effective and reliable group decisions from his study of honeybee swarms.

  1. The first principle involves the presence of common or shared interest and mutual respect. This promotes cohesion and the desire to reach a mutually beneficial decision. The implication is that the parameters for a successful outcome should be first understood and shared by all group members from the outset.
  2. The second principle is the minimization of a leader’s influence on group thinking and hence choice. Overbearing leaders diminish the power of the group to uncover diverse possibilities, to exercise critical judgment, and to filter the best alternative. The group should be characterized by an even distribution of power.
  3. The third principle is to seek diverse solutions to an issue. For this, the group has to be sufficiently large for the challenge it faces. Moreover, members have to have diverse backgrounds and perspectives and they must be capable of independent exploratory work. The context within which members work and present ideas has to be open, respectful, and inviting. All presentations (e.g. the bees’ dances) must remain honest regarding the extent to which they meet agreed criteria for success.
  4. The fourth principle involves aggregation of the group’s knowledge through debate. At this point the proposals of the members have to be converted into a single choice for the group. Groups continue to compete for additional members from a pool of individuals who have the capacity to investigate options and who are not yet committed to an option.
  5. Finally, the fifth principle involves the use of quorum responses for cohesion, accuracy and speed. When a threshold is reached for a certain option those members with less support should cease to push for their option and in fact should remain flexible enough to adopt the option that more clearly meets success criteria. The winning group then goes on to build a consensus so that when the decision is implemented there is full agreement among group members.

Today we know with a great deal of certainty that Shura yields the best collective decisions. We are told in the Qur’an how the first condition of mutual respect is divinely inspired for honeybees and believers, one through nature and the other through revelation. At the highest level, our common interest to protect human life through justice, dignity, equality, and peace is shared by all people. We are taught by the Prophet ﷺ (Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him) that a leader’s power, even if he be a prophet, must be limited and the participation of concerned stakeholders in decision-making is mandatory if we hope for the best result. We know that a variety of decision alternatives are better than a limited number of options but that for success any such presentations must measure up to pre-determined criteria. It is in this way that we can make up our minds about the best alternative without being unduly biased toward any one option particularly our own. (Seeley) Finally, we must continue to present the stronger alternative until enough individuals support it and the likelihood of general acceptance is imminent. Only then can we move to implement with success while never forgetting that learning is a continuous and lifelong process.

On a final note, if you pick up Professor Seeley’s book you will soon discover that he subscribes to an evolutionary scientific approach. According to this view “the process of evolution by natural selection, operating over millions of years, has shaped the behavior of bees so that they coalesce into a single collective intelligence.” While I believe this leads to inconsistencies in the text, and some rather remarkable stretches of imagination, it does not impact the integrity of the research as it concerns observable bee behavior, which is the concern of this article.

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  1. kelefeh says:

    subhanAllah… thank you for sharing this :)

  2. Amina says:

    I am so inspired! Mashallah Allah is great

  3. María M says:

    As salamu alaykum,

    Beautiful article.

  4. Ramadan says:

    jaza’alahu khayrah

  5. Laila says:

    Very interesting parallel

  6. هشام says:

    أحسنت، زادك الله علما

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