Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Bees love Dandelions

One of our girls enjoying a Dandelion
     It was a beautiful, sunny 15 degree celsius (60 fahrenheit) day in the garden and the bees were very active.  At this time of year there are a wide assortment of blossoms available to be foraged upon but one of the favourites is an unplanted native, invasive plant, the Dandelion (Taraxacum) of the Asteraceae (Aster) Family. Many still think of the Dandelion as an unwanted weed but I hope that attitude is changing along with the need for a manicured lawn.  For us the Dandelion can flower throughout the growing period and if the seed heads are allowed to mature you are guaranteed a plentiful crop.
     My garden is a 4 acre community garden close to downtown Vancouver and through the years I have grown to appreciate the weeds (?) and the invasive plants.  Being a very multicultural city it is so interesting to hear the perspective of different cultures on particular plants.  Gout weed ( Aegopodium podagraria) for example is an extremely invasive plant, native to Eurasia which although enjoyed by the bees is impossible to remove and an irritant to all of the gardeners.  One day two Chinese women approached me and asked if they could harvest our gout weed.  Attempting to hide my enthusiasm I asked them why.  They told me of it's medicinal properties (primarily to treat stomach ailments- thus the name gout weed) and told me how they boil it and prepare a tea.  On the same day I saw two older men harvesting dandelion leaves.  They explained to me that in Italy they cherish the leaves and fry them in olive oil and garlic.  The entire plant is edible and the flower petals, along with other ingredients, are used to make dandelion wine. The leaves are best when they first appear or after the first frost (Recipes). The ground, roasted roots can be used as a caffeine-free dandelion coffee.  Dandelion was also traditionally used to make the traditional British soft drink dandelion and burdock, and is one of the ingredients of root beer.  Also, Dandelions were once delicacies eaten by the Victorian gentry mostly in salads and sandwiches.  Dandelion leaves contain abundant vitamins and minerals, especially vitamins A, C, K, niacin, riboflaven and are good sources of calcium, potassium, iron, manganese and beta carotene.  Lecithin in the flower detoxifies the liver.  As well Dandelions nourish other plants through it's long (up to 3 ft) tap root which brings minerals and nutrients from a less contaminated part of the soil to the surface where it is utilized by the shorter roots of neighbouring plants.  If you break the stem of a dandelion the white fluid that appears can be used to ease the pain of bee stings or sores.  Wow!  What an amazing plant.

     Like us bees are healthier, live longer and perform better when feeding on a mixed diet.  The worldwide practice of monoculture agriculture cannot sustain a honey or native bee population (Hidden Costs of Industrial Agriculture).  In addition this singular diet experienced by bees of professional pollinators causes a weakened immune system and subsequent health issues.

"There is a growing body of evidence showing that poor nutrition can be a major player in affecting honey bee health. Eischen and Graham (2008) demonstrated that well-nourished honey bees are less susceptible to Nosema ceranae than poorly nourished bees.  Naug (2009) tested the hypothesis that nutritional stress due to habitat loss has played a major role in causing CCD by analyzing the land use data in U.S. He showed a significant correlation between the number of colony loss from each state and the state’s ratio of open land relative to its developed land area."   Zachary Huang, Michigan State University

     Bee Friendly Farming practices are essential for a healthy bee population.  Specifically, adopting a 6% diverse pollinator beneficial planting farming practice.  Different pollens have different nutritional value to bees and studies have shown a slight improvement in performance when feeding on Dandelion (Nutritional Value of Bee Collected Pollens).  Interestingly for me two of the best pollens for bees, blackberry and cottonwood are aggressive volunteers in our garden.

     Although the plum and flowering cherry blossoms are finished for us there is an amazing number of plants coming into blossom like the apple, pear, cherry, bulbs, purple deadnettle and marsh marigold.  Also, today was the first day I saw Raspberry flower formation which for us is the major bee forage in May through June.
     Please put away the Roundup and let your Dandelions grow.  You can control the spread of the plant by removing the flowers before they go to seed (Dandelion Wine ?).  Your bees will thank you.

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