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.