bee forage

Common and lance-leaved plantain for bees

My first encounter with plantain occurred when I was a kid in Pennsylvania. I had a brown pet rabbit, remarkably named “Brownie.” My mom explained how rabbits loved plantain leaves. She plucked some from the lawn and showed me how to guide a leaf—stem end first—into the rabbit’s constantly munching mouth. It was so cool! The leaf pleated into ruffles and disappeared like a tree limb in a shredder.

To this day, whenever I see the broad leaves of common plantain, Plantago major, I think of rabbits. Lately, though, I’ve been spotting bees all over the lance-leaved species that grows here in western Washington, Plantago lanceolata. The flowers are tiny, brown, and barely visible, with white anthers on a nondescript flower spike. I’ve seen honey bees and fat bumbles land on these spikes, bending the anthers to the ground, one after another.

Common plantain, Lanceolata major, was the kind I used to feed to rabbits. Photo by Jesse Rorabaugh.
Common plantain, Lanceolata major, was the kind I used to feed to rabbits. Photo by Jesse Rorabaugh.

Plantain is a bee favorite

I never gave plantain much thought as bee forage until I read a research paper about a new method of identifying bee-collected pollen.1 Looking at the tables, I was struck by how often Plantago pollen was found in the pollen loads of honey bees in both rural and urban environments of Ohio. The number of samples from plants in the Plantaginaceae family was just shy of the more commonly known forage favorites in the legume (Fabaceae) and aster (Asteraceae) families.

Apparently, beekeepers have known this for a long time. According to Honey Plants of North America (1926) plantain species supply no nectar but are a popular source of pollen. The book describes honey bee behavior at the plant: “Hovering in the air, the bee moistens the pollen with nectar gathered elsewhere and then brushes it off the anther with the tarsal brushes of the forefeet.”

You can find plantain everywhere

Although dozens of species of plantain exist worldwide, these two are very common across North America. Both are introduced and easily colonize lawn, pasture, roadsides, and parking lots. The broad-leaved type, often called common plantain, is rumored to have been introduced by early colonists. The lance-leaved type is often called ribwort because of the prominent ribs in its leaves.

Surfing around, I learned that some of the seed suppliers sell plantain seeds. This surprised me. Since plantain is everywhere, I can’t quite imagine the need to buy it. The reasoning seems to be that the plants have medicinal value, but more importantly, it is sometimes grown as animal feed. The deep roots make it drought-tolerant, so it is often the only green thing thriving in an otherwise heat-stressed, drought-stressed environment.

Common plantain is a perennial found in USDA zones 3-9. It is tolerant of many soil types and will accept full sun to partial shade. The flowers are tiny and green, arising on spikes that reach about 12 inches high. Although bitter, the leaves are edible by humans and butterfly larvae as well as rabbits. Birds eat the dry seeds, and apparently, bees like the pollen.

Ribwort, known as lance-leaved or English plantain, is similar but prefers USDA zone 4-8 in full sun to partial shade. It grows in soil that nothing else loves, especially dry, heavy soils with clay. The flower spikes reach about 18-24 inches, blooming from spring until fall.

Lance-leaved plantain, Plantago lanceolata, is the type that I see most often. Photo by Ian Wolfe.
Lance-leaved plantain, Plantago lanceolata, is the type that I see most often. Photo by Ian Wolfe.

Collecting evidence

Here in western Washington, I have seen both types, but the lance-leaved type is more common. Although I can’t find my pictures at the moment, I know I’ve photographed bees on these plants, both honey bees and wild bees. I always thought it was weird because the flowers are so tiny you wouldn’t think they were useful. Also, the flowers on the lance-leaved variety look like they are past their prime. But brown is simply their natural color, which is deceiving, especially from a distance.

My goal for the coming year is to photograph the bees I find on plantain to see who is showing up for the feast. It’s often true that the smallest flowers make the biggest impact on bees, so I’m eager to learn more about this surprising weed.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

References

  1. Richardson RT, Eaton TD, Lin C-H, Cherry G, Johnson RM, Sponsler DB. Application of plant metabarcoding to identify diverse honey bee pollen forage along an urban-agricultural gradient. Mol Ecol. 2021;30:310-323. https://doi.org/10.1111/mec.15704

Update

After she read that I couldn’t find my photos, Lisa Robinson, send along some photos she took of bumble bees on plantain in eastern Washington. She wrote:

We went up to Sullivan Lake which has an airport in the middle of the state park.  A ranger planted an area with astragalus, yellow clover, and some other things.  There were Bombus occidentalis and Bombus mixtus in the plantain in the lawn instead of the pollinator patch.

They were hard to photograph because of the bouncing of the flowers and the way the bees worked around and around each one, like a large moon orbiting the flower sideways.  Looking over these, I could see they were often above the flowers with exposed anthers, but you said they weren’t nectaring, right?  I’m going to look [more carefully] to see what they were doing…

Bombus mixtus on plantain. Photo by Lisa Robinson.
Bombus mixtus on plantain. Photo by Lisa Robinson.
Bombus occidentalis on plantain. Photo by Lisa Robinson.
Bombus occidentalis on plantain. Photo by Lisa Robinson.

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21 Comments

  • All of your plantain pictures look familiar. The first picture looks like the ones we used to shoot at each other when we were kids.

    I don’t know which kind we have in our yard now, maybe the major, but the honey bees love it. They seem to prefer a lot of flowers that are too tiny to impress the humans. I am sorry to hear it doesn’t provide nectar. Wait, you know I don’t claim great taxonomic skills, but is it possible our plantain is a variety that DOES provide nectar?

    • Roberta,

      When I was researching, I didn’t read about any that produced nectar but that doesn’t mean none exist. Interesting question.

  • I have my apiary in a natural conservancy where I’m allowed to cultivate wildflowers/noninvasive bee-friendly plants. Are these plantain plants considered invasive?

    • Jane,

      I have read mixed answers, depending on the area. Some people say it’s “aggressive” but not invasive. Some say it is invasive, but I haven’t seen it listed. I think you would need to do research locally.

  • I use common plantain for a salve that works wonders on honey bee stings, but not so well on yellow jacket stings. It’s made of plantain that has soaked in hot coconut oil or olive oil for around six hours, strained, and then mixed with some beeswax to form a salve. After being stung, I put some regular ammonia on it, then smear some of the salve on it. It takes away the sting quite quickly and I don’t have the reactions that I used to (major swelling, pain, itching, heat…). It’s good stuff, plus I know everything that is in it. Very good plant.

    • Don,

      Interesting. I had read that it worked wonders for honey bee stings, but I didn’t know anyone who had tried it.

      • Last year I made up a batch and gave it out to my family members. Wasn’t long before some were asking, “got any more of that salve?” This year for Christmas I’ve made up two batches. One that is strictly plantain, the other is half plantain and then a quarter each of Red Clover and Self-heal. The additional two plants are added to increase the efficacy of the salve to include skin irritations and the like. Both the Red Clover and Self-heal are listed a remedy for skin issues. Seems to work on rough skin patches also (e.g. elbows, heels). Now those are only observations, but interesting. I haven’t gone so far yet as to be making up lip balms, but looking forward to sometime in the future being able to use my own wax that I’ve harvested and cleaned for other purposes.

    • I have also read that you could place a chewed up plantain paste on a sting but have not tried it. I like the idea of making a salve though.

  • Glad to have come across your article. I have the stuff everywhere (east-central Kansas) and had thought it was just a pain in the butt. However, I have been enlightened. Thank you.

  • I hope I do not offend anyone with the following story, one of my sisters sent it to me tonight with Whats App and after reading the ribwort and pulsane stories here earlier today I thought you might all appreciate the ‘ribbing’

    To all you gardeners out there, this is essential reading…and hilarious! 🤣🤣🤣
    Just funny☺..
    😇
    GOD: Frank, you know all about gardens and nature. What in the world is going on down there on the planet? What happened to the dandelions, violets, milkweeds and stuff I started eons ago? I had a perfect no-maintenance garden plan. Those plants grow in any type of soil, withstand drought and multiply with abandon. The nectar from the long-lasting blossoms attracts butterflies, honey bees and flocks of songbirds. I expected to see a vast garden of colours by now. But, all I see are these green rectangles.
    St. FRANCIS: It’s the tribes that settled there, Lord. The Suburbanites. They started calling your flowers ‘weeds’ and went to great lengths to kill them and replace them with grass.
    GOD: Grass? But, it’s so boring. It’s not colourful. It doesn’t attract butterflies, birds and bees; only grubs and sod worms. It’s sensitive to temperatures. Do these Suburbanites really want all that grass growing there?
    ST. FRANCIS: Apparently so, Lord. They go to great pains to grow it and keep it green. They begin each spring by fertilizing grass and poisoning any other plant that crops up in the lawn.
    GOD: The spring rains and warm weather probably make grass grow really fast. That must make the Suburbanites happy.
    ST. FRANCIS: Apparently not, Lord. As soon as it grows a little, they cut it-sometimes twice a week.
    GOD: They cut it? Do they then bale it like hay?
    ST. FRANCIS: Not exactly, Lord. Most of them rake it up and put it in bags.
    GOD: They bag it? Why? Is it a cash crop? Do they sell it?
    ST. FRANCIS: No, Sir, just the opposite. They pay to throw it away.
    GOD: Now, let me get this straight. They fertilize grass so it will grow. And, when it does grow, they cut it off and pay to throw it away?
    ST. FRANCIS: Yes, Sir.
    GOD: These Suburbanites must be relieved in the summer when we cut back on the rain and turn up the heat. That surely slows the growth and saves them a lot of work.
    ST. FRANCIS: You aren’t going to believe this, Lord. When the grass stops growing so fast, they drag out hoses and pay more money to water it, so they can continue to mow it and pay to get rid of it.
    GOD: What nonsense. At least they kept some of the trees. That was a sheer stroke of genius, if I do say so myself. The trees grow leaves in the spring to provide beauty and shade in the summer. In the autumn, they fall to the ground and form a natural blanket to keep moisture in the soil and protect the trees and bushes. It’s a natural cycle of life.
    ST. FRANCIS: You better sit down, Lord. The Suburbanites have drawn a new circle. As soon as the leaves fall, they rake them into great piles and pay to have them hauled away.
    GOD: No!? What do they do to protect the shrub and tree roots in the winter to keep the soil moist and loose?
    ST. FRANCIS: After throwing away the leaves, they go out and buy something which they call mulch. They haul it home and spread it around in place of the leaves.
    GOD: And where do they get this mulch?
    ST. FRANCIS: They cut down trees and grind them up to make the mulch.
    GOD: Enough! I don’t want to think about this anymore. St. Catherine, you’re in charge of the arts. What film have you scheduled for us tonight?
    ST. CATHERINE: ‘Dumb and Dumber’, Lord. It’s a story about….
    GOD: Never mind, I think I just heard the whole story from St. Francis.

  • Hello I recently wrote an article on bees obtaining pollen from Broad leaf plantain in the American Bee Journal. Also as to lance leaf Plantain Until a year ago I only saw bumble bees work Lance leaf. But last year 2020 I saw a honey bee collecting pollen from the anthers of Lance leaf Plantain.

    What I think of when I see bumble bees collecting pollen on Lance leaf plantain is pole vaulters. The weight of the bumble bee brings down the entire pollen structure to the ground, reminding me of a pole vaulter about to launch him/her self upward. Al Avitabile

    • Al,

      Oh no! I missed your article. I will look for it today.

      The pole vaulting comparison is a good one. I know I’ll think of that next time I see one arching over under the weight of a bee.

  • I have also made a salve from plantain leaves. The pain of a bee sting goes away much more quickly. When I apply it soon after I’ve been stung, I rarely have the swelling or itchiness I otherwise would have. If I don’t have salve with me when I get stung, I find a plantain leaf near the bee yard, chew on it to macerate, and apply it to the sting. It works the same way. I love plantain as much as the bees do!

  • Here in South Africa, the field is humming with bees collecting pollen from the narrow-leafed plantain, with very light yellow pollen baskets …. this collection has been ongoing since September (our Spring). A joy to watch. It also intrigues me that they prefer (numbers on the ground as opposed to numbers in the trees) this over much much grander big bright sweet-smelling flowers of our acacias

  • Hi Rusty, Thanks for the heads up on plantain. As a gardener, always thought of plantain as a nuisance & one to weed out before it took over (it can be very prolific). Guess I will change my attitude & watch the honey bees & bumbles work it for pollen. Thanks again for showing me what I don’t know. Love it!

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