The truth about daffodil pollination: surprising reasons bees ignore them

Daffodil pollination: you will seldom see any pollinators poking around the daffodils.

You might expect to see happy pollinators decending on spring daffodils, but they seldom stop by. So who pollinates the daffodils?

This question has popped up several times recently, probably because daffodils are in bloom this time of year. Based on the fact that daffodils have large showy flowers, I assume that sometime in the distant past daffodils were pollinated by insects—probably bees.

But like most flowers that have been highly manipulated by plant breeders, daffodils are no longer particularly attractive to insects. The reason for this is simple. When it comes to ornamental flowers, plant breeders select for beauty. Daffodils, in particular, are selected for the color of the flower, the symmetry of the flower, the angle of the flower (does it face up or down), the size of the flower, and other arbitrary characteristics that daffodil judges look for.

In selecting for these characteristics—and crossing them with individuals with other favorable characteristics—plant breeders have been able to produce an amazing variety of daffodils that run the gamut from white to yellow to orange to pink. Some of them are very beautiful and prized by collectors and flower aficionados alike.

Daffodil breeders hand-pollinate the flowers they want to cross and, if all works well, they will get a few seeds from each cross. These seeds are planted and tended for many years—I believe the average is about seven—before the bulb is large enough to produce a flower. Only then does the breeder get to see the results of his work. Once a flower is developed that the breeder wants to keep, it is reproduced by asexual reproduction—that is, the bulbs divide and produce new bulbs.

What you lose in this process are many of the characteristics that made the flower attractive to pollinators in the first place. By selecting only for beauty, for example, you may lose fragrance, sweet nectar, nutritious pollen—or any number of things that the pollinators liked.

Years ago, as a member of the Oregon Daffodil Society, I had the good fortune to meet one of the world’s foremost daffodil breeders. I asked her why she wasn’t worried about all her carefully recorded crosses becoming “contaminated” by pollen that might be carried by wind or animal pollinators. I was intrigued to learn that this wasn’t considered important because very rarely will these highly-bred flowers cross without human intervention.

This loss of pollinator-attracting features is not unique to daffodils but happens in all sorts of flowers from roses to pansies. It is the main reason why people interested in planting native bee habitats or wild pollinator habitats are encouraged to plant either native species or heirloom species that have not been highly manipulated. If you are unsure of a plant’s history, there are certain earmarks that point to intensive breeding. These include very large flowers, variegated flowers, flowers of unusual color, great size, long blooming period, or flowers known as “doubles” or “triples” with multiple sets of petals.

If you are trying to plant for pollinators, remember that many of the gardening catalogs mark the varieties that are attractive to pollinators. Also, stay alert when you see local plants that attract large numbers of pollinators—perhaps you can find the name of the variety from the owner or ask for a cutting or find out where the seed came from.

The important thing to remember is that the flowers most attractive to humans are often not those most attractive to pollinators.


Daffodils in a vase. Rusty Burlew


  • Thanks for this Rusty! We were just speaking about this in our Beekeeping class and it’s great to understand exactly why bees don’t visit Daffs.

  • Interesting information about daffodils. It would be wonderful if someone with an a concern for the biosphere could market daffodils that have all the original value to bees. It’s sad to think that the millions of daffodils planted in gardens, parks and along roadsides might as well be plastic.

  • Daffodils have lost the need to be pollinated because they are grown from bulbs! The only reason they still have flowers is that the bulbs are selected from those that produce the nicest blooms. Plant breeders keep seed-fertile varieties in order to continue hybridizing. But these don’t make it to Market: only bulbs grown out from them will be sold.

    You don’t see a lot of bees or other pollinators on hybrid roses, either. They are propagated almost entirely from cuttings. Incidentally, if your hybrid rose gets frost-killed, but the rootstock survives, you’ll have a nice multiflora with tiny white blossoms, heady scent and a cloud of bees around it.

    • Thanks for your reply but I already knew that.I was hoping that someone somewhere would market daffodils bred back to regain their original value to pollinators or maybe original wild daffodils which would still have some beauty.

      • Steve,

        I believe some breeders are breeding back to wild stock. Wild daffodils are in the species Narcissus pseudonarcissus, if I recall.

        • Thanks Rusty for that maybe there is still hope. I will do some searches on that. Please let me know if you hear of a good supplier.

  • Hello Rusty,

    Recently you had written something about someone wanting to make the flowers that you list as attractive to bees more computerised. I think that is what you meant anyway and in the new set up of the site I am still trying to find my way about so I cannot find that particular post as yet.

    I am also a very keen gardener and I make great use of a site called Dave’s Garden http://Davesgarden.com. He is based in America like you as well. Could you and the person who suggested this in the first place work in some way together with Dave? He already has all the plants registered and computerised with pictures, habitat, which animals (insects) like or dislike them, hardiness zones etc. etc. Getting to work with those people may save you mountains of work.

    I took the liberty of writing to them with the suggestion as above but from them to you… So if you can excuse this interferingness you may hear from someone from Dave’s Garden soon. Thanks once again for your work for HoneyBeeSuite I couldn’t ever bee without it again. Lindy (also known as Mifanwyn

    • Thanks, Lindy. Yes, I am familiar with Dave’s Garden and indeed it is an excellent site. I will see what they have to say.

      By the way, the article you are looking for is here: It’s pink with star-shaped petals.

      When you go to my site, just click on the “blog” tab at the top of the main page, then you should be able to find your way around just like before.

  • I write an article in our small local paper re:nature in the public park. This month will be about the choice of plants for the butterfly garden and why the flowers most people want in their yards are not the ones most attractive to insects. May I quote you “…flowers most attractive to humans are often not those most attractive to pollinators,” states Rusty Burlew on the website HoneyBeeSuite.com

    • Hi Ramona,

      Sure, you may quote me, and thanks for asking. Also thank you for writing about pollinators. They need all the help they can get.

  • Very interesting article. Thank you. I have been trying to plant pollinator friendly, neonic-free plants and bulbs for a while now. Last spring, very early, the daffodils were amongst the first to come up, when almost nothing was around, and they were being visited by the bees quite a lot, more than the couple of tulips that were also out. Neither daffodil nor tulips were doubles. The grape hyacinth were also a hit around that time, as was the perennial gold ball alyssum. The all-time favorite of the year with the larger bees was the black locust when it came into bloom later on.

    Right now its towards the end of our summer, and a large oregano with pink flowers is favorite and covered in bees, goldenrod, bergamot, and anise hyssop have quite a few visitors while perennial sunflower and the older lavender blooms are also being occasionally visited by some pollinators, the odd remaining dandelion seems pretty popular too.

    I have also started planting some native buckwheat and penstemons; so far, they are very small, so don’t seem to have enough flowers to attract much.

    There was one old double gallica rose, planted because of its fragrance, and while it didn’t attract a lot of bees, (not to be expected with its tight petals) it was a home to a huge amount of insects and little white spiders that lived between its petals, so perhaps even some of the doubles may have their uses for nature as well.

  • I have seen bees go for yellow trumpet daffodils quite a bit but ignore the white ones, even though some are scented. I think the white color doesn’t attract them (white is the color for moth attraction) but Thalia also bloomed later, when there was more available to choose from. I know I saw honeybees on yellow trumpets but I think bumblebees also went for them quite a bit.

    The spring bulb that got the most action, by far, was the grape hyacinth, which bumblebees really really like but honeybees ignore.

    There is a big difference between a flower that offers no useful resources to pollinators and one that just doesn’t produce seeds well. The latter is just fine. In fact, some highly-bred plants are better for pollinators because they don’t put energy into seed production and bloom more. It’s not true that highly-bred flowers are worse. Some are better. Some are not. It comes down to the individual plant. Research showed that two types of hybrid lavender were better for bees than wild species, in terms of the amount of resources produced per square foot. However, some hybrid plants are useless or mostly useless.

    From what I’ve seen, they key with making daffodils useful is getting the yellow trumpet types that bloom early, when little else is available. Tulips are pretty useless. Grecian windflowers (anemones) are visited by various solitary bees. I saw bumblebees in hyacinths but they really seemed to go crazy for the grape hyacinths much more. Honeybees ignore those, though. Thing is, though, bumblebees are important pollinators (buzz pollination can’t be done by honeybees) and honeybees aren’t even native to the US, so give them some love, too.

  • Thank you for this. For the first time in nearly 15 years of growing daffodils, one of mine was naturally pollinated. I’m looking forward to trying to grow them from seed. Even if it does take 7 years to produce a flower.

    • Christy,

      It is worth the wait. I usually had a few that bloomed after only five years, although most took longer.

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