Are Dandelions Really Important to Bees?

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Robert Pavlis

I am sure you have seen the memes on social media; Dandelions are the first food for bees. “Don’t pick dandelions and save the honey bee”. How important are these dandelions to bees, and which bees are we talking about? Is it their first food? Do bees actually use the pollen and nectar from dandelions?

Just because social media says its true, does not mean it is. Lets uncover the truth behind this new craze to save the dandelions.

Are Dandelions Really Important to Bees?
Are Dandelions Really Important to Bees?

Bees First Food

I grow a lot of plants in my garden and I seem to remember many things flowering before dandelions (Taraxacum officinale). I spoke to one of the researchers at the Honey Bee Research Center, University of Guelph and asked him about the bees first food.

Around here, zone 5, Ontario, “their first important food source is tree pollen. Long before flowers become important, honey bees are in the top of trees collecting pollen. Maples, elms, poplars and willows are important as a first food” and they flower before dandelions.

Microbe Science for Gardeners Book, by Robert Pavlis

“They gather dandelion pollen when other pollen is not available.”

Some trees are wind pollinated and produce a lot of pollen. They also have a very concentrated source which means bees don’t have to fly long distances between flowers to get it.

What about herbaceous plants?

Lots of things bloom before the dandelion. This year I kept a record of early flowers in my garden and got help from people on our Garden Fundamentals Facebook Group, who also contributed to the list. All of these flowered before dandelions.

  • Snow drops
  • Japanese Butter Bur
  • Winter aconites
  • Crocus
  • Vinca minor
  • Hellbore
  • Lamium
  • Primula
  • Hyacinth
  • Violet
  • Iris reticulata
  • Scilla
  • Pushkinia
  • Draba
  • Erica (Heath)
  • Spring beauty
  • Spicebush
  • Pulmonaria
  • Coltsfoot
  • Epimedium
  • Muscari
  • Pulsitila
  • Muscari
  • Daffodil
  • Anemone blanda
  • Corydalis solida
  • Hepatica
  • Virginia bluebells

It is clear that dandelions are not a bees first food.

Fruit Trees vs Dandelions

Do bees prefer fruit trees or dandelions?
Do bees prefer fruit trees or dandelions?

Last spring I found a field of dandelions, and right beside it was a row of flowering ornamental pears. Thousands of flowers on both plants, all in prime condition, on a nice warm, sunny day.

All bees and other pollinators were on the pear trees
All bees and other pollinators were on the pear trees

Where were the bees and other insects?

Almost none were on the dandelions. The pears were covered with insects and you could hear the hum they made several feet away. I found a wide range of insects; different kinds of bees and flies, including honey bees. You would think that in such a crowded environment some would go to the dandelions where there was no competition, but that was not happening.

But the story is more complex. Dandelion flowers produce peak pollen between 10:00 and 11:00 A.M. (between 8 and 14C) and close in the afternoon. Apples (don’t have numbers for pears) produce peak pollen between 12:00 and 4:00 P.M.. So it is possible that you might find bees on the dandelions in the morning and on the fruit trees in the afternoon. I can’t remember what time I was there?

No bees on the dandelions
No bees on the dandelions

There is also evidence that once a bee is conditioned to dandelions, or any other flower, they will stick to sourcing pollen from it for a few days. Even if fruit tree pollen is available, they ignore it, once conditioned on dandelion pollen. An abundance of dandelions may in fact keep bees from the fruit tree pollen, which is a more nutritious source of pollen.

Do Bees Use Dandelions?

Bees do use dandelions for both nectar and pollen. They especially like a lawn that is full of them since this makes it easy for them to collect a load of pollen. According to the Honey Bee Research Station, it is not a preferred food, but it does help fill the gap when other sources are not available and in spring dandelions exist in abundance.

Quality of Dandelion Pollen

“Honey bee foragers collect nectar, pollen, and water from flowering plants. Pollen is the honey bees only significant source of protein, lipids, minerals, and vitamins, all of which are necessary for brood‐rearing, normal development, and worker longevity.” Nectar is a source of carbohydrate that provides energy for bees.

Protein contains amino acids, and some of these amino acids are essential. That means the organism can not make them; they have to get them in food. Dandelion pollen is low in valine, isoleucine, leucine and arginine, essential amino acids for honey bees.

Dandelion is consider a poor quality source of protein for bees.

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Variety is the Spice of Life

Collecting highly nutritious pollen is important for bees but variety seems to provide them with a better ability to fight off disease. What they really need is a variety of pollen.

The type of pollen collected is influenced by the ease with which it can be collected and not by its nutritional quality. Honey bees can’t seem to tell which pollen is more nutritious. There is some evidence that bumblebees select better quality pollen.

If we make it easy for honey bees to collect poor quality pollen by creating a lawn full of dandelions – that is what they will collect. A lawn of dandelions keeps bees away from more nutritious pollen.

Even more important is to have access to pollen and nectar at all times when they are active. Native bees tend to emerge when temperatures rise above 55ºF. Bumblebees are often the first bees to emerge in spring and the last bees to be foraging in fall. Other native bees out in early spring include,  Andrena spp. (mining bees), Hoplitis spp. (mason bees),Osmia spp. (mason bees), Lasioglossum spp. (sweat bees), Anthophora spp. (digger bees), Nomadaspp. (cuckoo bees), and Ceratina spp. (small carpenter bees)

Honey Bees vs Native Bees

Most of the research is based on honeybees, some on the bumblebee, and we know very little about most other native bees. They probably have similar nutritional needs, but we don’t know.

Click this link for more information about the topic of honey bees vs native bees.

Do Bees Need the Dandelions?

Dandelions are not the first source of pollen for bees.

The pollen from dandelions is of poor quality, but better than nothing. They do provide a good source of nectar.

Keeping dandelions may keep bees from using fruit tree pollen which is a better quality of pollen. In this way dandelions may actually be harming bees.

A lawn full of dandelions is better for bees than a weed free lawn, but not nearly as good as a garden with a variety of plants and no dandelions.

If you must have a lawn, consider planting fruit trees, even ornamental ones, and skip the dandelions.

 

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Robert Pavlis

I have been gardening my whole life and have a science background. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

79 thoughts on “Are Dandelions Really Important to Bees?”

  1. Fascinating that wind pollinated trees are a source of pollen! I have previously noted certain ornamental grasses (also wind pollinated) might be pollen sources for bees – so much for those who only advocate NECTAR rich flowers in their garden.
    Might I turn your title to what do bees do for dandelions? – in view of the fact that most don’t need to be pollinated to set seed

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  2. There is definitely a difference in the job of feeding Honey Bees, a non-native heavily farmed insect, and the 3,999 or so native bee species. We love honey bees because we love honey, but we also need to consider then needs of the rest of the bee species.

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  3. I have some January King cabbages that have gone to seed ( I let them go on purpose) also some turnips that are doing well. I noticed bees, mostly honey bees, and some smaller kinds working both kinds of flowers. I never thought to notice whether the dandelions were out at all. It did seem though, the cabbage and turnips were early. Again I wish i had noted exactly when the flowering started. Next year perhaps? It also sounded like the bees could get addicted to a whole field of them, easier pickings I guess. I wouldn’t have saved the dandelions in either case. ty for the post

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  4. If you are a beekeeper, you see what they bring in during early spring. Much of what I see is yellow dandelion pollen. Other pollens well but majority yellow dandelion.

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  5. Our bees hit the dandelions as soon as they appear They are very important part of the honeybees survival We are curious if you spoke to UofT beekeeping You May have misinterpreted what they told you.

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    • As the article says – I talked to U of G. And I did NOT misinterpret what they said. What have your bees been feeding on over the last month?

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  6. I’d wondered about this myself, as I have plants flowering all through the winter and early spring. Thanks for investigating properly. I’ve shared in several groups.

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  7. Daffodils are in your list of early blooms, but hybridizer and long-time grower and seller of daffodils Brent Heath notes that Narcissus don’t provide anything for bees or other pollinators, and encourages gardeners to supplement daffodils with early blooms that do.

    This raises the question of whether and how much other flowers on the list provide for pollinators. I’m prepared to vouch for winter aconites and crocus, but wonder if it might not be worthwhile reviewing the list with experts to see if some are more valuable than others.

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    • I do see pollinators on daffodils, but maybe not all cultivars.

      Reviewing all flowers would be a great idea – let me know what you find.

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        • Stick with yellow trumpet hybrids that have normal/even tetraploid chromosomes, so that they are both seed and pollen fertile (e.g. the true King Alfred and Dutch Master). Bumblebees like them.

          Large-cupped yellows may also get action (e.g. Carlton) but the trumpets are probably the best.

          Bees see intense color best so avoid washed-out colors and whites. Moths like whites and certain daffodil species use those, though. They don’t use the trumpet shape and they need to be scented. Tazetta is apparently a moth species and possibly pheasant’s eye. Jonquils may also attract them.

          Old pheasant’s eye hybrids like Horace are also fertile and bloom later.

          The trend in mass-produced bulbs is away from fertility and toward triploid, pentaploid, and septaploid plants. They don’t seed and put more energy into making bulb offsets than the species. They don’t produce much, if any, pollen. Older types are usually better for pollinators but there are some quite old hybrids that are sterile, too.

          Neonics are likely in the bulbs of commercial growers.

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      • I would like to see comparisons between the native and non-natives too. That said, a humble thank you for pulling this research together. I will give it good mileage.

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    • Spring bees love crocus.

      In my scandinavian climate, the most important pollen source for all bees is pussy willow (salix caprea). Without it, biologists say, we wouldn’t have many bees survive our harsh climate. Norway is actually the country with most species of bumble bees in the world thanks to the pussy willow. Yet many are endangered here as well.

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      • If we see a line-up at MacDonalds, do we conclude it is good for people to eat that and exclude a large array of healthy food choices? What we think we see is not always actually what is going on. This is why research is so important. It is astonishing how little we understand about our own back yards…utterly astonishing. I appreciate people like Robert who look deeply into these things….

        IMHO EVERY plant that we introduce intentionally in our gardens, or by accident by bringing in soil, compost, or potted plants needs to be understood…and if it is invasive and ubiquitous now, think please, about what will it be like in 100 years or sooner when we get old…we all do!

        Introduced invasive plants are a form of living human “litter” that reproduces when it has gotten beyond our control. It is actually the second largest concern to climate change…alien invasive insects threaten almost every major tree species in our Acadian forest. The issue is not taken as seriously as it should be.

        Know Thy Plant has always been my motto. This is also the best way to save a lot of time and effort trying to eradicate something you mistakenly planted that wants to rule the world. I am speaking from experience…do not underestimate plants…they will humble you when you take the time to understand them well.

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    • Yes, the pollinator initiative in Ireland (run by NBDC) also states that both daffodils and tulips are of very little use to pollinators.

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  8. Thank you! I’ve been posting this in any number of Facebook pages and I am glad to have one of your columns to back me up.

    Reply

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