If only we could bottle my son’s excitement about dandelions and sprinkle the potion on the “old school” yard maintenance crowd who still regards dandelions as weeds. That’s right, dandelions are increasingly being considered an early spring flower critical for the survival of honeybees.
In early spring when there are few flowers available for foraging, perhaps the single most valuable early spring wildflower is the dandelion. If a honeybee hive survives the winter, beekeepers know the bees will be safe from starvation if they can stay alive until dandelions bloom. Dandelion pollen is moderately nutritious and the nectar is abundant. It doesn’t normally produce enough nectar to produce honey above and beyond what the bees will use for themselves, (so a person doesn’t generally see dandelion honey for sale), but it gives the bees a huge boost and adds to the health of the hive.
Helping honeybees is in our own best interest, of course, since they our nation’s leading crop pollinator. Imagine the labor costs of hiring workers to pollinate the nation’s crops by hand to our produce fruits, vegetables and nuts. While honeybees are clearly not the only hard working pollinators, their recent deaths from Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) starting in 2006 have captured the world’s attention. To date, CCD has been defined as a series of symptoms, but the cause and the cure remain complex and elusive. But CCD is not the only problem facing honeybees. In 2010, the overwintering losses were at the same unsustainable rates of over 30% but the cause seemed to be less from CCD than from other problems. Habitat loss combined with a class of insecticides, neonicotinoids, seem to be the big cuprits that are making survival for our insect friends a challenge. Neonicotinoids (aka neonics), related to nicotine, attack the insects’ nervous systems. Neonics, are systemic, meaning they permeate the whole plant, including the nectar and pollen and they persist for years unlike other insecticides. The neonics do not kill the insects on contact, but impare the insects’ ability to navigate back to their hives or nests. In addition, insects, like bees, feed on the nectar and bring pollen back to their brood slowly weakening the whole colony with these neuro-toxins making them more susceptible to disease.
A very simple way to help honeybees is to refrain from killing or removing the dandelions in lawns. Perhaps all a person needs to do is view the cheery little yellow flower as a desired flower rather than a weed. I haven’t given up on my lawn, I swear. (Although I keep putting in more and more functional gardens so I have less and less lawn.) But I think bees have enough strikes against them these days. If I can help their plight by doing nothing, it seems like a pretty good deal for both of us. I can feel good about enjoying a little time in my lawn chair and not feeling a sense of guilt for not keeping up with up with the neighbors’ with attentive yard care. I am, after all, a self-proclaimed Lawn Chair Gardener.
Remember: a “weed” is an unwanted plant. If you want all the plants in your yard, you won’t have a single weed!