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.

Compost Science for Gardeners 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.

Building Natural Ponds book, by Robert Pavlis

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.

YouTube video

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. Hi, could you maybe consider changing the first image in the article, or at least moving it farther down? When people share it’s the first thing they see and it’s pretty misleading. Thanks for considering

    Reply
      • Dandelions are the most important food source for bees in Ireland. As researched by the National Biodiversity Data Centre in Ireland (https://pollinators.ie/favourite-food-for-wild-bees-in-2022)

        In 2022, 1,482 bee records were submitted, including information about what the bee was feeding on.

        Wild bees are in trouble mainly because of hunger: there are not enough of the plants that provide the best source of pollen and nectar. So, this data is hugely important in helping us create a picture of bees’ favourite food – a menu of flowers that we know they love.

        Here are the top ten favourite food for bees in 2022, in order of the number of sightings submitted:

        Dandelion (more than double number of sightings of Knapweed!)
        Knapweed
        Clovers (Red & White)
        Heather (garden and native)
        Thistles
        Bush Vetch
        Lavender
        Devil’s-bit-Scabious
        Bramble
        Willow

        Reply
    • Of course! They think that honey bees are the only bee on the planet. What about the other 3,999 (+-) species of bees, many of whom are oligolectic? There is ecology…and then there are the producers of mega honey who travel the hives around in trucks.

      Reply
  2. Dandelions? YUK! Dandelions? YUP!
    As visually unwanted invaders, everybody just tries to kill them. I have a different approach:
    When they come up in the spring, I leave them alone as a source of nectar for all pollinators, especially the bees. When the flowers die off and dry up, I deadhead them before the puff-balls appear and dig up the roots (as deep as I can reach). I then poke the nozzle of a pump sprayer into the hole and give a 2-second shot to kill the root, using glyphosate or all-purpose weed killer (I use Roundup, as it’s readily available). That stops them from re-growing.
    But they will be back next spring as the seeds from last year
    are already in the soil, and many are wind-borne and will blow in from other places. I have successfully removed all dandelions from my yard and those of the neighbors on each side (but remember they can be blown in from miles away).
    It took me 3 years to get rid of those already established (growing or germinating), but I’m on the prowl every year to catch any I missed, but it keeps me from doing any REAL work LOL. I got rid of over 100 the first year, but am now down to 2 or 3 a year.

    Reply
  3. SORRY. YOU Are WRONG,Wrong Wrong
    Try Asking Bees What They Like.
    Also Dandelions Are NOT a Weed.
    You can Make. Coffee. Tea. Salads. Syrup
    Wine and More..

    Reply
    • If I am so wrong why why why have you not found a single scientific reference to support your statement?

      Prove dandelions are a first food for bees!

      Reply
      • Thank you Robert…I have been “on” this for years, and am being inundated…my native plant seedlings have no room. People say the same thing about coltsfoot too…Tussilago farfara, but it is taking over our stream and brook sides, making dense shade and eliminating areas where a plethora of native plants that hold the banks and support (many kinds of) insects (in addition to just honeybees) once lived. But its CUUUTTTEE!

        I think one thing people have a hard time with is…if you see a plant with bees on it that must be good. But the story is so much more complex than just looking and deciding you know what is going on. Thank goodness for researchers like Heather Holm et al.

        Reply
        • Clearly that meme is done tongue in cheek. But if you remove the dandelions and plant things that are better for bees – the bees will be better off.

          Reply
          • no not clearly but what is blantantly obvious is that for every one person who reads even a whole paragraph of what you wrote at least 10 people (if not 1,000 people) are going to see that picture.

          • Maybe – but so what? If people don’t take time to read the material they won’t understand it.

        • Prove that dandelions are NOT harmful…google “dandelion fields” look at where the photos were taken (you will need to make a large list)…remember that they are native to Greece, so don’t count that. THEN google, for those locations, “native plant meadow” plus each location. How did those massive fields get all over the world? Who planted them? This plant eliminates all “disturbed ground colonizer plants” that are native to the area. Every part of the word has them and they are a highly diverse group of distinct locally evolved species.

          But if you would like a well referenced body of research, here you go….

          It is natural to want to defend dandelions…they are pretty, cute, and edible…but we must see beyond their edibility (not terribly palatable though, IMHO), and their service to our also non-native to North America honey bee. We have a whole culture of cute story telling around them. But these plants have over-run diverse cultures of plants like the white colonialists over ran many kinds of people…and that was just one species. If you do not value biodiversity for its own sake and do not understand that it is not a healthy idea for humans to destroy many plants (and the many animals that depend upon them) then you probably do not know where the bulk of our food supplies and medicinal originated. We simply do not understand the interdependencies of species well enough to pick and choose what lives where without putting ourselves at great risk and pushing many more species into extinction than has happened since the last great extinction (of which six are pretty well documented at this point).

          We cannot undo the invasion of this plant (unless we all found it either delicious or worth money, then, like the cod, and many other important food sources we would extirpate it in a hurry. But we can certainly stop spreading the myth that it is good and we should spread it. We can certainly fight back without the use of toxic chemicals, and by taking half the lawn and putting it into native plants to support many more than the few insects they support. Native plants currently support plus or minus a few the following numbers of insect species in North America: 4,000 bees, 825 butterflies, 12,500 species of moths, ants, beetles, etc. All of those species support (at a minimum) 96% of songbirds, and most of the amphibian species. Now you can go check out how many of those are in decline.

          Where I live, the dandelion out competes and changes the soil chemistry through allelopathy shouldering out our wild strawberries and blueberries over time…I would far rather have those to eat, wouldn’t you?

          Most people don’t distinguish between dandelions, fall dandelions, hawkbit, hawkweeds (a huge family of plants), sow thistle, and catsear etc. All different species. They all spread over new territory very rapidly.

          Finally, look into pollinator diversion…a pollinator not on its co-evolved plant means those plants disappear. Here is a reference: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00442-008-1250-4

          The above idea is only just beginning to be studied, but if you understand the concept of opportunity cost (that a bee cannot be in two places at once), and that if it is on the dandelion and other introduced plants it is not allowing the native plants that support so many other native species such as the Lepidopterans to reproduce at all. I know this is kind of technical but hope it helps you understand the issue. The dandelion is the iconic invasive plant that we cannot “see” because of our culture and our lack of understanding the need for anything to live but ourselves. For those who suggest that we can “fix” or improve ecologies by spreading dandelions or engaging in “no mow May” in lawns, it is a short sighted suggestion that is like suggesting we can deal with climate change by not changing our lives in any substantial way. Those are memes, and they are destructive and misleading.

          https://www.cabi.org/isc/datasheet/52773

          Reply
      • Thanks, Robert. Glad you exposed that popular canard. I live in a heavily treed neighbourhood. You could look all day and you would never see a bee on a dandelion, whereas our pear tree is covered with them.

        Reply
    • Are you talking about “honeybees” or all bees? Because dandelions are not first food for very many of the other +- 799 species of bees in Canada alone. How do you “ask a bee” what they like? If there is a line of people at Tim Horton’s is that what is best for them? Yelling at people when you don’t really know the answer yourself is wrong, wrong, wrong. I would look at confirmation bias, because it is clear that you, as a human are trying to justify a plant that benefits you, and not looking at the research. Dandelions are one of the most invasive plants on the planet spread by people…they are allelopathic and suppress seed germination of a wide variety of other plants…that all those other species of bees, and countless other lepidopteran insects need. Spreading dandelion seeds is a romantic sentiment that really has no discernable positive ecological impacts where it has been introduced, largely without its evolved predators.

      There is NO plant that makes people dig out the chemical controls faster. If you want to reduce chemical use, DON’T spread dandelions! I grow native plants, and am over-run by this well-meaning (but simplistic) meme that originated…where dandelion is a native plant, lol.
      https://www.researchgate.net/publication/288464430_The_allelopathic_potential_of_common_dandelion_Taraxacum_officinale_WEB

      Reply
    • 1) The Guardian has become a very unreliable source of gardening information.
      2) There is NO research referenced in this article that shows dandelions are an important food source for bees.

      It is important to look at the real science.

      Reply
      • blogs like this are not just misleading and unhelpful they are full of misinformation. You cite reference to University of Guelph and take it out of context.
        sic University of Guelph Honeybee Research Center. (They use dandelions as part of their intro videos.)
        “Dandelions, thistle, and other flowering weeds are a very good source of food for pollinators. As well, not removing fallen leaves or dead woody plants from your gardens in the fall can help preserve pollinator habitat and homes for offspring that will emerge in the spring.”

        I do hope the readers of your blog read the research and make their own mind up rather than rely on internet misinformation.
        I do hope readers of this blog watch the University of Guelph where categorically states that the bees are bringing in dandelion nectar in the “colony inspection” video.
        https://youtu.be/tlqXDInZUoE

        Reply
        • 1) I did not take anything out of context. Their first food is not dandelions.

          2) I never said they don’t collect dandelion pollen – read the post.

          3) The fact that they use a picture of a common flower in their intro means nothing – that is marketing, not research.

          Reply
    • That’s not research. No quantitative, double-blind study involved. It’s one guy’s opinion; also know as the informal logical fallacy of appeal to authority.

      Reply
  4. Please stop painting research from a small area to the entire world as global fact. In Alberta. for example, there are no fruit trees to speak of – except a few crab apples. There are no Elm or Maples. The variety of early blooming plants pales in comparison to dandelions. Maybe dandelions are not important for bees in warm BC or Ontario, but I would hazard to say they are very important in Alberta. I see bees on dandelions every day, unlike the reports from Guelph. Dandelions are important in Alberta and until the time we can grow peach trees here, they will likely remain important. Please keep that in mind! I don’t understand how researchers can be so myopic. Is it research?

    Reply
    • You should read the post again!

      1) It does not say dandelions are not used by bees globally.
      2) It doss say “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.”
      3) It does not report on any published research, as you claim.

      Reply
      • This is a wonderful article. Thank you for writing it. I have been concerned over the disappearance of bumblebees, and blamed it on the lawn mowing community around my neighborhood. I didn’t even know that bees get pollen from maple trees. I will consider planting fruit trees…Again, Thank you!

        Reply
    • This is a sad thing to read, as there is no place in the world that does not have native plant colonizer species that are more than likely more supportive of a wider range of native bee species…(Canada has about 800 native bees, a number in serious decline), AND that support the production of lepidopteran larvae so needed by birds. Is Alberta THAT messed up ecologically? Then I would suggest starting a diverse native plant garden. Ever seen a “chewed” dandelion? I haven’t either, and I spend a lot of time looking at them since everyone thinks it is a “thing” to spread one of the most invasive plants in…the…world, because “they are good for the bees”. I am pulling them out of my “trying to be more native” property in natural areas. So let’s look at this…is it a good thing if your exotic invasive plant is swarming with bees? Trust me, even though science is slow and it is hard to do two year (grad student length) experiments to prove that, the science will come. I see it easily in the field in native plant groupings along roads…on native plants easy to see good pollination on like elderberry and bunchberry are sparsely pollinated…few fruit. The massive cumulative impact of invasive and exotic species diverts and monopolizes the short season the bees have…and then they don’t pollinate native plants…which then can’t reproduce, creating a cascade effect through the ecology. Dandelions do benefit honeybees (somewhat, as Robert states below…would love a link to that reference), but we are Canadians and should be promoting maple syrup instead, lol. We need to unhinge our romantic attachment to the dandelion and look critically at landscapes covered with millions of them, asking ourselves on a deeper level “what is really happening here?”

      Reply
    • @Julian

      No fruit trees to speak of? That’s rubbish. I live in Edmonton and in my city yard (thanks to the previous owner) there are several lilac varieties, a flowering plum, a crabapple, Manitoba maples, a birch, an aspen, a gorgeous flowering tree that produces loads of red berries I can’t identify and about half a dozen different varieties of flowering and fruit bushes. We mow twice a week so dandelions don’t get much chance, but there are loads of bees in my yard, of all shapes and sizes and types – yellow, black, blue, fuzzy, not fuzzy, big, small, medium — from April right up until hard frost. They love my spring bulbs, veggie garden and flowers, but it’s the trees and bushes that I think must be their mainstay. Sometimes I sit out just to watch them work and I swear, the entire bush is abuzz, with all kinds of bees. (Some of them work so hard they have to take a nap in a flower. Not sure there’s anything more hilarious than seeing a giant fuzzy bumblebee napping in a flower.)

      I won’t spray my grass so we do get the odd dandelion, but I can attest to the fact that it is not their chosen meal ticket. It’s not even their favourite lawn food — I think they prefer the flowering clover.

      Also, I’m not alone. A lot of my neighbours have early flowering trees (double flowering plums and cherry trees are popular), and the nearby River Valley is full of saskatoons and all kinds of flowering weeds. There is never a bee shortage in my neighbourhood, and the strawberries, raspberries, apples, cucumber and squash grow huge and prolific with excellent pollination. There is definitely no need to encourage dandelions as long as you provide for other sources of food.

      Reply
    • Uhm… what makes you think Alberta doesn’t have maple trees? Our whole shelterbelt around the farm are maple trees, poplars and willows. Willows and maples are the first ones to ‘bloom’ (not obvious while driving by) at around the same time as dandelions, sometimes even earlier and are full of of bees and other native pollinators every spring. Shortly after my lilacs start blooming that are loved as well. My biggest concern with dandelions is that they take over every area in my yard if I let them. I’m trying to establish a native flower garden to attract a big variety of different native pollinators into my yard and if I let just one dandelion grow the offspring and seeds will choke out every other plant in my garden. There is so much more to consider than just ‘seeing one bumble bee on a dandelion’ … what about host plants for butterfly larval or other pollinators that need a different kind of nectar?! I prefer clover in my lawn over dandelions anytime…

      Reply
  5. The Pollination Ecology Lab at Simon Fraser University in greater Vancouver did a study on a variety of pollinators (honey and other bees) in Southern British Columbia. It included lists of the top 25 wild and Garden pollinator attractant plants according to their studies. While the article did say people could consider forgiving dandelions in their gardens, it was interesting to note that it didn’t crack the top 25 of pollinator attractors in any region. Their data also broke down which pollinator preferred which plant. Very interesting!
    https://www.sfu.ca/people/eelle/bee_info.html?fbclid=IwAR1BGgT4pvC6ZgMHvVkq7JOIt93wghmzVbOEGhLbIXdRRSmdKKU4ERLEWD8

    Reply
    • Thank you so much for this reference…people completely miss what this might mean for native plant reproduction.

      Reply
  6. The thing this column doesn’t mention is that the reason Common Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale), and probably the uncommon species as well, don’t bother to produce much pollen or nectar is because they’re asexual clones or microspecies, producing seeds by apomixis. The pollen and nectar are just evolutionary legacies that don’t do anything for the plant, and have accordingly been selected against.

    Reply
  7. This is a very interesting and useful article. I did notice a couple of important points that might have been more fully addressed (note that I am keeping bees in Ireland, where the local climate and flora are similar to those of Britain, but may differ most extremely from many parts of North America).
    Most of the ground flowers that bloom before or concurrent with daffodils are garden flowers, growing, at best, by the swathe rather than the acre. For instance, I have just put in three thousand snowdrop bulbs (three subspecies, timed to cover the period from late January to early April), and my neighbor’s garden centre is famed for its snowdrop walk. There might be as much as half an acre of snowdrops within that half kilometre radius of the hives. In the same area, in March and April, the grazing fields that surround us are covered in dandelions; if the dandelion space were estimated as one fifth of the dandelion growing area (to get a roughly accurate comparison with close growing snowdrops), they would still be looking at at least three solid acres, I’m guessing. Of course, the early and standard snowdrops (elwesii and nivalis) are largely gone by the time the dandelions bloom, and therefore, while crucial in a warm winter when the bees are using energy trying to forage and raise brood earlier, their use is past by the time of the main explosion in hive needs. The same is true for the butterburs (winter heliotrope from Dec to Feb, butterbur from early Feb to early March or so). No one plants pulmonaria or hellebore by the acre, and they, too, are usually done or have trailed down to ineffective quantities before the end of March; and so on.
    Willow is the big one for bees in late Feb to early April, to be sure. If you want to help the bees, any bees, at this time of year…and don’t mind exerting a firm hand on your tree to keep it where you put it, and don’t have issues with roots breaking septic tanks and whatnot…plant a willow tree. Pussy willow, goat willow, weeping willow…all good, pollen and nectar. Blackthorn/sloe, followed only slightly later by damsons and plums, come on just a little after the willows start, and the plums are less potentially aggressive than many willows. Flowering trees, as noted, except for those horrible ornamentals like Bradford pear and the double flowering cherries that infest so many public spaces…plants bees can’t use, either because nothing worthwhile is supplied or the mass of petals prevents access to nectar and pollen…are the absolute best things you can plant if you have one small garden and want to help the bees, far better than filling your yard with ground flowers. Shrubs are kind of in the middle.
    The big, big advantage of dandelions in this country is that, while the bees prefer the fruit trees and will come from some distance to seek out my cherries (not a popular garden tree here, compared to apples)…if a hard freeze hits at the wrong time, the fruit blossoms die (aagh, weeping and moaning, gnashing of teeth and rending of garments and so forth), but the dandelions are still right there.
    Having said that: dandelions are important to bees in the big way, that is, if you live where there are a lot of dandelions all around you. For the smaller lawn or garden, however, there are more efficient choices.
    This is especially true if you want to support the non honey bee species, which will *not* ignore a small patch of something high yield for whatever is blooming in the greatest quantity. In fact, a small yard might do best for pollinators overall with a variety of plants selected to bloom throughout the year…this is where those garden plants like pulmonaria and hellebores really shine in the early spring…or a single tree that provides bee usable flowers at a crucial time. Attention to flowers such as foxgloves, which bumblebees can access but honey bees cannot, also helps take the pressure of competition off the native bees.

    Reply
    • It should be noted that this comment applies to where dandelions are widely native, as the insects in the ecology will have evolved to use them. And, to re-iterate, it is NOT all about bees. There are many other insects, birds and mammals supported by plants. I would love to know how many of the North American species of the above are actually supported by dandelions.

      Reply

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