For a lot of temperate-climate beekeepers, dandelions are the peak of the spring season. Their bloom marks the point where hives are finally getting much stronger, nectar is pouring in, and the dandelions’ massive gifts are giving a fine boost to hive weight.
If you are in the lower Midwest, dandelions have finished, leaving otherworldly bobbs of seeds atop hollow spikes. Most of us, as kids, have plucked those expended dandelions and, with our breeziest breaths, launched seeds into the air. If you lived in town (I didn’t), you might have irritated Mr Wilson, the guy next door, who didn’t want your family’s seed in his ecologically-sterile green lawn.
For those of us living further north, the dandelions are now peak. When I teach beginning beekeeping, I tell Calgary students to circle May 25th on their calendars. If the weather is warm and dry, the bees will have their best day since last August. I’ve been declaring the third quarter of May as our local dandelion bee-boom event for years. Only once – in 2015 – was I completely wrong. That year, there wasn’t much of a winter here in western Canada. February and March were mild. Dandelions blossomed in early April. That was an exception, this year is the norm.
The combination of long days in late May, plus moisture in the soil from spring rains, pushes nectar and pollen out of the dandelions exactly when hives need them most. If you are surrounded by dandelions, as we are, the bees needn’t fly far to pick up lunch.
Common dandelions – like almost all of North America’s major honey plants – are from Europe. [We have a couple obscure varieties of native northern dandelions, but the honey dandelion arrived on the Mayflower as a medicinal herb.] Like common dandelion, our honey bees are also from Europe. Honey bees and dandelions are old friends. Bees undoubtedly lend the lions a hand in their mission to conquer the world. I was once scolded (only half in jest) by a rancher who didn’t like the way my bees had spread dandelions through his irrigated alfalfa field. He may have had a point, though the dandelions were spreading before my bees arrived. A photo of his field, infested with dandelions, is just below. I reminded him that my bees helped his sweet clover and alfalfa (also European imports).
Perhaps I’m fond of dandelions because they are the only major honey plant which my bees feasted on in Pennsylvania, which also occur here in western Canada, where I’ve spent most of my life. In the east, where I learned to beekeep, bees experienced dandelions, black locust (acacia), tulip poplar and basswood (linden), a long summer dearth, then goldenrod and aster in the fall. Here, it’s dandelion, then canola, alfalfa, and clover. (There was clover in the Appalachians but it rarely yielded nectar – the soil is too acidic.)
I’m excited by the abundance of dandelions, the twenty or thirty or forty pounds of honey bees store from dandelion, and the general buzz of hive activity. But do dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) actually provide great nourishment for developing bee colonies? Compared to having an apiary without them, dandelions are wonderful. However, just like many other plants (alfalfa comes to mind) the pollen from dandelion lacks some essential amino acids needed for bee development.
Pollen provides protein which develops and maintains animal bodies. Protein is made of amino acids. There are ten amino acids which honey bee larvae need for maximum development: arginine, histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, tryptophane, threonine, and valine. In the 1980s, researchers found that dandelion pollen contains seven of the ten amino acids bees need. If bee brood is fed only dandelion pollen, it can’t grow; if adult bees eat only dandelion pollen as their protein source, they die sooner than bees on a complete diet. The lesson? Bees need more than just dandelions.
So, is my excitement about my bees’ excitement misplaced? Just a little. Fortunately, for me today near the Rockies, and for the younger me in the Appalachians, there are other spring flowers. These include fruit blossoms as well as a very wide range of annuals. None of these supply the massive quantities of nectar (and pollen) that I’ve seen from dandelion, but fortunately, honey bee colonies sample from a bouquet of pollen types. Some might lament that dandelion isn’t perfect (I’m not lamenting), but somehow bees have worked this out thousands of years ago. They’ve generally adapted to find the balanced diet they need. Meanwhile, take a look at the bees on these dandelions!