Peak Dandelion

Pollen-dusted bee on dandelion (credit: Guérin Nicolas)

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).

Dandelions in an irrigated Saskatchewan alfalfa field.

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!

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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3 Responses to Peak Dandelion

  1. susan rudnicki says:

    I’ve always noticed the rather spindly nature of our urban dandelions in Los Angeles. And rarely see honey bees on them. But the dandelions seen in the mountains, on disturbed soils like road sides and house pad clearings are always much more robust looking. I think they must benefit somehow from the harsher winter cold that we don’t get in the city. Very interesting about the analysis of protein content and the missing amino acids. This again illustrates the urgent need for honey bees to have a diverse diet, in contrast to the common thinking that “flowers are flowers” When I make presentations, I try to help the listeners understand this is one way the commercial honey bees can suffer with poor diet, set down, as they are, on singular crops for weeks at a time. Since almost everything planted in the LA basin is a exotic from somewhere, we have a huge range of southern hemisphere plants—South African and Australian, and New Zealand plants contribute to a almost year ’round palate of different foods. We have some dearth in late summer before the Pepper Trees (Schinus terebinthifolius) yield a huge quantity of nectar and pollen.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Erik says:

    Thanks Ron! My wife says pollinator friendly lawn is just code for weedy, but I like it nonetheless. We get dandelions along with our spring trees so the bees don’t visit the dandelions quite so much in Virginia.

    Currently in your old stomping ground in Florida, though not near your apiary. Thinking of you regardless.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ron Miksha says:

      Florida’s great! Enjoy your visit. I doubt this is your first trip, so you likely know that there is a lot of geographic diversity in the state and quite a lot of (somewhat) undeveloped back country. Hope you have time to explore.

      Liked by 1 person

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