As Jessica, our Conservation Programs Director, so eloquently outlined in her piece titled, The Science of the Seasons, spring has been slowly creeping across Ontario this year, but thanks to some of our heartier more reliable plant species, our bumble bee queens have been able to fuel themselves while they are out and about on the few warm days we’ve had this spring.
As the snow melts and the days begin to grow longer, willows are blooming and bring colour to an otherwise drab landscape. Willows are one of the few floral resources bumble bee queens have when they emerge from hibernation, blooming in tandem with only a few spring ephemerals like trout lily, trillium, and daffodils. But what blooms next sometimes rivals the willow for the number one spot as primary floral resource, and it is what has kept our bumble bees fed this spring after the cold month of May forced the majority of the queens to continue hibernating during the willow bloom — if you haven’t guessed it, we’re talking about DANDELIONS!
Taraxacum officinale, derived from the Latin word for pharmacy and paying homage to its value as a medicinal herb, or dandelion, derived from the French Dent-de-Lion, literally translated to lion’s tooth and referencing the plant’s jagged-edged leaves, is native to Europe and Asia and was introduced to North America as a food crop. The leaves are high in beta-carotene, vitamin C, and iron, and has traditionally been used to treat a variety of digestive disorders. Today, however, it is considered by most to be an ugly, noxious weed, especially in residential and agricultural areas.
We’re not sure who decided that this bright yellow flower, one of the first pops of colour we get after our long hard winters, is ugly and needs to be removed, but we want to start a new trend! Let’s go #GreenToGold, and leave these flowers growing in our lawns, agricultural fields, and parks! Maybe if we called it by some of its other common names, such as lion’s tooth, or Irish daisy, people would be more willing to leave these flowers for the bees. Or, maybe this clip from Christopher and Galila, our central field crew, can serve as a helpful reminder to us all that many of our native pollinators are relying on us to maintain the nutritional resources they need early days of spring.
There is no denying that this plant is invasive, growing fast and furious across almost all landscapes, and that it can cause some economic damage in many crops, but this bright yellow flower is a vital early spring resource for a wide variety of pollinators, including our beloved bumble bees. Compared to many other wildflowers, dandelion pollen actually has poor nutritional content, but it is still readily consumed by bees because it offers up nutritional diversity in homogenous landscapes, which is the case for many agricultural fields. It also provides early resources in urban residential areas where popular ornamental gardens provide very little in terms of usable resources for our native pollinators.
If we can refrain from treating dandelions with pesticides, or removing them from our lawns, our city parks, and our farmlands in the spring, then we will give bees, caterpillars, and several moth and butterfly species a fighting chance to survive and flourish into the summer months when other wildflowers bloom in abundance and their reliance on dandelions is diminished.
All we need is a little spring patience—enjoy the sunshine and save your dandelions until June!
—The Bumble Bee Recovery Team