Pro IQRA News Updates.
Dandelions, love them or hate them, are blooming in abundance across the UK this spring. As an ecologist who studies the insects that visit these sun-scented flowers, I’ve never been able to understand why anyone would hate them.
Why do some people despair when they see a dandelion cutting through the grass in their lawn, or through the concrete in their car? Most see dandelions as “weeds”: they don’t want them around their house and will reach for a lawnmower, or worse, a weed killer, when one dares to raise its yellow head.
Perhaps I am a stranger because I rejoice at seeing a street or a garden or a field blooming with heads of dandelions. But because these flowers make great food for a wide variety of endangered bees, I would like to convince you to love these flowers as I do, and to care for them as you would any other wild flower in the meadow.
flowers in the city
The past 50 years have seen an expansion of urban farms across the UK. The few places set aside for wildlife have eroded. We have pushed nature to the brink, but nature adapts, changes, and overcomes these obstacles.
Many people think of plants as pretty plants. Necessary for clean air, yes, but simple organisms. Incremental research has changed the way scientists think about plants: they are far more complex and more like us than you might imagine. This burgeoning field of science is too interesting to do justice to in one or two stories.
This article is part of our Plant Curiosities series, exploring scientific studies that challenge the way you look at plant life.
Studies of bee feeding patterns in cities, where much of their original food sources were covered with concrete and paved roads, show a shift in their varied wild diet to one dominated by dandelions, clover, and grass.
Dandelions are an abundant source of nectar and pollen for bees that fly around an environment where the variety of food choices continues to shrink. These plants grow in very little soil, bloom from early spring to just before winter and provide sustenance for bees all year round.
What makes dandelions so successful in feeding a variety of pollinators is the shape of their flowers.
The evolution of bees is a dance between the changing shapes of flowers and the corresponding length of bees’ tongues. Complex flowers, such as vanilla, evolved to ensure that only a certain type of bee could pollinate them, while others evolved simple, open flowers from which anyone could get pollen and nectar.
Dandelions fall into this second camp. Take a look at a patch of dandelions and you’ll be amazed at the variety of visitors. Over the course of just 10 minutes in my garden, I spot no less than 10 different species of bees and flies: the abundant orange-tailed bumblebee, as well as the common cartoon bee and a honey bee from one of my hives working hard to collect pollen for the colony.
Among the many threats to pollinators (pesticides, nest habitat destruction, invasive species), food shortage is one of the most important. Abundant dandelions can go a long way to filling that gap—at least in terms of nectar.
Some scientists have argued that dandelion pollen is not the best for bees. Research indicates that it may contain high levels of the essential amino acid proline (which bees can only obtain from food and cannot synthesize themselves), but is lacking in several others, such as isoleucine and valine. A diet lacking in these elements can hinder bees’ ability to thrive, resist disease, and raise their young.
But in a world where bees are stressed by the lack of any food whatsoever, I would argue that any source that can reproduce under the most difficult conditions like a dandelion is something worthwhile to conserve.
No Mow May is approaching: a campaign sponsored by the charity Plantlife to allow weeds to grow in gardens. Unfortunately, at the end of May, all of these beautiful wildflower habitats can be cut down and sprayed with herbicides.
Manicured lawns are essentially verdant deserts: ostensibly full of vegetation but with nothing to feed bees or other wild animals.
Not everyone wants a garden full of wildflowers. So I recommend that, instead of dedicating the whole garden to nature for a month, you try to put a patch aside forever.
Dandelions are amazing plants that can survive anywhere as long as we allow them to. They are a lifeline for pollinators that are on edge and need protection as part of our environment in parking lots, roads and lawns. Next time you see a dandelion, try to spot it as a bee.