The dandelions of spring

Dandelions are not perfect bee food, no single species is. Instead, they are very good food. They are early, they are everywhere. They are not particular. They teem with life.

As a kid, I hated dandelions. In early spring before they bloomed, the greens—bitter and rank—were served fried in bacon fat and smothered in gravy. Then, as soon as the first yellow heads appeared, I was given a long weeder with a splintery handle and a pair of cotton gloves too big for my hands.

The dandelions were impossible to pull. Slimy things lived beneath the leaves and the taproot was longer than my arm. Milky white sap that smelled green oozed from the hollow stems. The ones I missed—or pretended not to see—were the only healthy plants remaining in the brown of late July.

Weeds with a higher purpose

I first learned that dandelions had another purpose when I learned to garden. “Plant potatoes when the dandelions bloom,” I was told. And it works every time. But once I got into bugs, dandelions became a life force. They bloom in the spring, they bloom in the fall, they grow everywhere, and they are loaded with sweet nectar and Day-Glo pollen.

If you want to see honey bees, look for a dandelion. If you want to see ephemeral bees glinting green and blue in the sun, look for a dandelion. If you want to see iridescent flies, multicolored beetles, or camouflaged spiders, you’ll find them all on a dandelion. Every year, life unfolds on the sun-yellow blooms.

And if you like to photograph bugs, dandelions are the perfect backdrop. Not as contrasty as things black or white, the saturated yellows highlight your subject while it frolics and twists in the sticky dust.

Plentiful bee food

According to Honey Plants of North America (Lovell 1926), honey made from dandelion nectar is deep yellow, granulates quickly, and has a strong flavor. The amount of nectar produced is highly variable and dependent on local weather conditions. Colonies have been known to store 30 or 40 pounds in some years, none in others. Wax combs that are built during dandelion bloom are often a vibrant canary yellow, almost shocking in hue.

The real boon for bees is the ample supply of pollen. Dandelions produce truckloads of the stuff, and because the flowers close up at night and during bad weather, the pollen is not washed away by dew or rain. The grains are sticky and large, which allows honey bees to pack hunking pellets of it back to their hive.

Pollination not required

Oddly enough, the dandelion plant is not dependent on pollination by insects. According to a recent article in Bee Craft, the award-winning journal of British beekeeping, the dandelion can reproduce by parthenogenesis. Just as a honey bee queen can produce drones without fertilization, so can dandelions produce viable seed without fertilization.

Some sources claim that all dandelions in North America are clones of a few strains imported from Europe, and they continue to thrive in our lawns and gardens using a strange type of parthenogenesis that involves three sets of chromosomes. No wonder they all look alike!

The question that bugs botanists is why these clones continue to produce pollen and insect-attracting nectar when it is not necessary for their survival. But it seems to me that because they are clones of each other, normal means of evolutionary change are not available to them. Without sexual reproduction, there is no genetic variability other than chance mutation.

The fact remains that dandelions are introduced weeds that choke roadsides and meadows, gardens and lawns. But if you love bees, if you love pollinators, you need to see them in a different light, as a resource important because of its timing and distribution. So put away your digger and trowel, toss out the weed-and-feed, and go fall in love with a dandelion.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Spider backed by a dandelion
One of my favorite photos. The big yellow sun in the background is a dandelion.

Comments

Bill
Reply

Rusty, I don’t mind the mini sun dots in the yard and I know my bees love this early spring food source. Nice photo of the Crab Spider!

Anna
Reply

The humble dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is an amazing medicinal plant. I try to tell everyone it is NOT a weed. Its leaves contain carotenoids, vitamins A, B1, C and D, calcium, antibacterial compounds, trace proteins. The root contains, among other things, vitamins from the B complex, vitamin C and many minerals. It is used extensively in Europe to treat many diseases of the liver and gall bladder, hipercholersterolaemia, urinary tract infections, circulatory problems, anemia, endocrine disorders, even cellulite. The whole plant is an excellent detoxifier and is typically collected in April through May. I eat dandelion salad on a regular basis and drink an infusion made from the whole plant (dried). So the dandelion is not only good for bees, but for humans also. And it is so beautiful, too. If you try to buy the leaves or the root from a health food store, it is so expensive. It should not be killed with chemicals …

Rusty
Reply

Anna,

Slightly off topic, but in college one of the first things we had to learn as agriculture students was the definition of a weed. The one we were taught, and I think it’s the very best, is simple. A weed is a plant out of place. So if you want the plant, regardless of what it is, it is not a weed. If you don’t want the plant, regardless of what it is, it is a weed.

Mari Vega
Reply

My great-grandmother said something similar about weeds, that they’re just unwanted plants. I wanted to share the situation in Chicago and other places where city governments simultaneously are encouraging people to grow native plants (because they reduce water usage and run-off, etc) and yet giving tickets for having “weeds” (to collect the money). This happens because the departments are not on the same page, and ordinances are written using vague wording. And, also because there is the push and pull from financial incentives. Has anyone experienced being caught in this kind of catch-22?

Rusty
Reply

Mari,

I’ve had quite a few readers tell me that they got huge fines in Chicago for having native plant gardens and pollinator gardens. One was over $900!

Anna
Reply

Rusty,

That is a very simple definition, I agree. Unfortunately, it allows people to get rid of a plant too easily, just because it annoys them, without considering its potential benefits. Without considering the impact of chemical use, either…

Rusty
Reply

Anna,

I don’t use herbicides either, but I certainly believe a person has a right to choose which plants he wants and which ones he doesn’t . . . and the “plant out of place” definition is nearly perfect. For example, if an oak tree takes root in your strawberry patch, it is a weed. If a strawberry takes root in your oregano, the strawberry is then the weed. Every time you choose for a plant in a particular area, you are choosing against another. Only so many plants will fit in a given space.

Linda Rivers
Reply

Thank you for this wonderful account of dandelions. I have always seen the beauty of a field of dandelions and now I know why! They are so important to the bees. And only three sets of chromosomes! Fascinating little weeds.

Nancy
Reply

Thanks Rusty for defending the humble dandelion. Lawn services in the US use more chemicals than all of food agriculture combined!!!

Still working on my Beekeeping Weeds idea.

The bloom in the foreground appears to be Persicaria pennsylvanica, Smartweed, or Ladies-thumb. Since this seems the occasion to take up for weeds, and in case you hadn’t noticed, this weed is Japanese Beetle Happy Hour. It’s what we call a “trap plant.” Leave a clump in a corner of your garden that isn’t needed for a crop. In July or August you will find it full of MATING pairs of Japanese beetles, which you can either crush (if you get them by the head they’re less squishy) or brush into a bucket of soapy water to drown.

If you manage to kill a mating pair, you are sparing your garden as many as 200 more the following season. Using this method instead of chemicals, after three years I rarely saw more than 2 or 3 a season.

Remember, gardeners: protoplasm is protoplasm. If a chemical will kill Japanese beetles, it will kill honey bees. And enough of it could kill YOU.
Thanks again!
Nan
Shady Grove Farm
Corinth, Kentucky

Rusty
Reply

Nancy,

I didn’t know that about Japanese beetles and smartweed, but I’ve never seen a Japanese beetle since living out here in western Washington. Back in Pennsylvania, they were thick.

Darkstone
Reply

Rusty-
I’ve really appreciated your site… full of wonderful, helpful information. I am going to be a new beekeeper as of April 16. This was a bit spontaneous. We have been interested in getting bees for several years, and suddenly this February (after all the local beginning beekeeper classes were already over), my hubby said, “Let’s stop thinking about it and get bees this year!” Who could pass that up? So, I’m doing lots of reading and have been using your site as a mentor. Now that bee day is almost upon us, I have a serious concern: I am in Ohio, and we’ve had a pretty fierce winter this year. It’s still rather cold here… days are hitting from 40′s to 60′s but the nights are still dropping into the upper 20′s- low 30′s. I’ve read all your posts about being unable to feed sugar syrup in temperatures like that. So I am panicking. Weather forecasts say my installation day is going to be about 45 and breezy w/ nighttime temp of 29. Yikes! How do I feed my new package on new woodenware sugar syrup in these temperatures??? Can I feed a new package sugar like you recommend for fall? I’ve purchased a pollen patty too. How long will one patty last? Please help a panicking newbee so my bees don’t freeze or starve in our freaky spring!
P.S.- Nothing’s really blooming yet.

Rusty
Reply

Darkstone,

There are several things you can do. When you first install the bees, warm the syrup gently, let’s say 100 degrees. They will keep taking the syrup until it gets down to 50. So if you warm the syrup in the morning, and the daytime temps are 40 to 60, it should stay warm enough for a number of hours. Then, in addition, give them a patty of hard candy or a tray of granulated sugar under the lid. If you use sugar, put it in a paper plate and spray it with water so it gets a crust on top.

The next morning you can warm the syrup again.

Once they start building comb, you will be okay. But I wouldn’t release the queen until you see comb because you don’t want them to abscond.

Darkstone
Reply

Rusty-
Thanks so much for your advice. I am very nervous about absconding after reading all your posts about absconding bees- especially those on new woodenware! We’ll see how it goes- they’re now calling for snow (!) the day before our bees arrive. Ohio weather is absolutely insane. Just wanted to thank you again for such a helpful site. In my area, I’m a generation younger than, and a lot more female than most of the local beekeepers, who so far all use 10 frame deeps. I’m doing 8 frame mediums and a Russian queen, so I’ve sorta been made to feel my choices were ridiculous. I feel like I need to succeed because of that, and due to finances, we could only afford to start one hive this year, so all my eggs are in one basket!

Rich
Reply

Rusty,

First paragraph in section “Pollination not Required:” produce, not produced.

Rusty
Reply

Rich,

Thank you!

Deborah
Reply

If a “dandelion” shows signs of milky sap – it is milk weed, and poisonous to eat.
True dandelion does NOT milk, although leaves can be bitter.

BE VERY CAREFUL WHEN CHOOSING WILD EDIBLES – THEY CAN LOOK ALIKE.

Rusty
Reply

Deborah,

According to The World of Plant Life (Hylander, page 498), Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast (Pojar, page 270), Common and False Dandelion (OSU Extension Bulleton 117), Herbs (Bremness, page 222), and Wikepedia, Taraxacum officinale (true dandelion) has milky, white stem sap.

BE VERY CAREFUL WHEN CHOOSING WILD EDIBLES – THEY CAN LOOK ALIKE.

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