Beneficial insects

A Dandelion With That?

How the gardening world has changed in the last 30 years! “Organic” is now the watchword. Every mention of insecticide or herbicide is met with cries of scandal. And not only do we accept dandelions (Taraxacum officinale), but we even modify our habits to make room for them in our lawns! Who would have thought? It fills with joy the kid in me who used to come home with yellowed knees, much to the dismay of my parents who had to wash my stained pants.

You may be familiar with the Défi pissenlits (Dandelion Challenge), an initiative of Miel&Co that encourages individuals and organizations to delay mowing lawns to allow dandelions to bloom and thus feed our precious pollinators, such as bees, wasps, flies, butterflies, moths, hummingbirds, bats and others, who have very little to eat when they come out of hibernation in the spring. The destruction of natural habitats and pesticides are only two of the causes of the decline of pollinators and insects in general, hence the importance of taking action.

Photo : Petr Ganaj

Times Are Changing

My father, Larry Hodgson, a great dandelion advocate, told me that when he was editor of the magazine Fleurs, plantes et jardins in the 1990s, he almost lost his job over this forbidden love. He had suggested that we let dandelions grow in our lawns and some industry players (who paid for ads in the magazine) called for his head. Fortunately for him and for us, Larry kept his head, and times have changed!

Something Other Than Dandelions!

However, there is more to life than dandelions. In her text The New Dandelion Challenge, Edith Smeesters suggests other plants, such as thyme (Thymus serpyllum) or white clover (Trifolium repens), that can be incorporated into your lawn for season-long flowering. Julie Boudreau has also compiled a list, Some of the Best Nectar-Rich Plants, with nectar bearing perennials, trees and shrubs that are a good source of nutrients for bees and butterflies, among others. That’s not to mention my own piece, A Spring Full of Flowers, for Pollinators. Why do I keep busting your chops with all these alternatives? Well, the truth is that dandelions are not really the best food source for pollinators.

Photo : Jeremias Müller

An Incomplete Food

It is not the quantity of pollen produced by dandelions that is at issue, but its quality. Indeed, dandelion pollen contains an abundance of protein, but it is a protein of lesser value, lacking essential elements. Protein is composed of amino acids. However, the protein contained in dandelion pollen is low in certain types of amino acids, such as leucine and arginine. In addition, it is low in valine and isoleucine compared to the needs of bees. It is therefore an incomplete protein. A deficiency in these amino acids could reduce the brood-rearing capacity of honeybees.

I confess to taking a shortcut here by suggesting that all pollinators have the same nutritional needs as honeybees. In fact, not every pollinator has been studied. But providing a varied diet for disseminators can only have positive effects, especially when that food is flowers!

I am not suggesting that dandelions are bad for pollinators either! However, they do need a more diverse food source. No one would say that broccoli is not healthy, but eat only broccoli for months and you may feel the effects! It’s also worth mentioning that in some cases, dandelion pollen may be the only food source available at a given time or place, so it’s important. It’s a bit like fast food from the garden: it helps, but you shouldn’t eat it too often. A dandelion with that?

Photo : Tiut Vladut

So why The Dandelion Challenge?

According to Miel&Co, “this movement aims to raise awareness of the importance of pollinating insects”. The dandelion is emblematic of spring flowering, especially in urban areas. Who hasn’t thumbed its flower into a friend’s face to tease them, or blown its fluffy ball to the four winds (including onto the neighbor’s lawn)?

For me, the dandelion is not only an emblem of the short summers of my childhood, it is also the perfect symbol to raise awareness of the importance of pollinators to the public and to organizations. You see, we’re talking about it now. Mission accomplished! And long live dandelions!

Mathieu manages the jardinierparesseux.com and laidbackgardener.blog websites. He is also a garden designer for a landscaping company in Montreal, Canada. Although he loves contributing to the blog, he prefers fishing.

17 comments on “A Dandelion With That?

  1. Mathieu Hodgson

    I am glad this article has sparked such animated discussion. I was hoping to encourage gardeners to seek out alternatives to dandelions as food for pollinators without going against the “Low mow May” mouvement, but it seems I have failed at this! It is my understanding, please correct me if I’m wrong, that dandelions spread vigorously without be invasive, in that they do not displace native plants. I’ve been looking for information on the effects of dandelions on native flora but have found very little. I would appreciate readers input on this. I, of course, encourage the use of native plants, by publishing articles on them here at Laidback Gardener and in my work as a landscape designer, and will continue to do so. I apologize for having caused offense, but highly appreciate your comments, and will be careful to be more nuanced in my treatment of issues such as these.

  2. Lynne Patenaude

    Much better than protecting non-native dandelions for non-native honeybees is to reduce your lawn area and plant more native plants for native wild pollinators. Here’s my favorite “dandelion” article: https://haltonmastergardeners.com/2022/03/29/my-yearly-dandelion-spring-rant/

  3. Yes, . . . but why are we so supportive of invasive exotic pollinators, such as the now common honeybee, who displace native pollinators?

    • Mathieu Hodgson

      I feel like I failed to get my point across, which was to encourage spring flowering from native and non-native plants, for all pollinators.

      • Oh, it is no failure. That is what the pollinator fad is about. However, the fad also supports exotic pollinators that compete with native pollinators. Because I like fruit, I happen to appreciate pollinators. I am not overly concerned with who does the job. However, I am also aware that some native species, such as the California poppy, are becoming more scarce than they naturally should be for a variety of reasons, and one of those reasons is is the disruption of the pollinator ecosystem.

  4. Mary L Discuillo

    Just read all the stories about dandelions. Wow I had no idea how much talk their was about them! I think now my dad was on to something when he sent us kids out to pick them all out of the yard-i think he gave us a nickel for each one! ( I always thought it was just to keep us busy and out of the house 🙂
    They are honestly pretty little flowers-util they go to seed- and then they are hideous.
    In the end the story for gardening is quite short-plant natives. Get rid of pesky weeds by doing the old fashioned conscept-weeding-not spraying.

  5. Ann T Dubas

    Great discussion! Every early spring I wonder if I’m better off trying to eliminate the early lawn “weeds” or if it’s better to leave the flowers for pollinators at least till more plants are in bloom. I know not all the “weeds” are natives and neither are many of our ornamental spring flowers. But is imperfect food better than no food? To be clear, we have introduced many natives. They have trouble making it because the deer eat them. However, it’s a fight worth fighting and we have found natives the deer don’t like. Still, we only kill off the truly noxious invasives such as garlic mustard and similar bad guys.

  6. Dan Bolton

    I am by no means an expert on gardening, nor on land management, but as long as I pay my taxes I can practice Moose Miller’s theories of horticulture. Do as little as possible, and let nature re-balance itself.

  7. Treelover

    Isn’t it time for the Laidback Gardener to address some of these issues on native plants and pollinators as pointed out in the many comments? I used to come to LBG as a reliable source of information but it seems to be on shaky ground on this issue. As for honey bees , yes they pollinate human food crops, but there is a whole industry supporting them. Please advise people who want to have a garden that supports native pollinators.

  8. Mary Cantin

    “A deficiency in these amino acids could reduce the brood-rearing capacity of honeybees.” Isn’t calling it broccoli generous? Perhaps potato chips. Something that fills you up but doesn’t nourish you?

    • Mathieu Hodgson

      Agreed! And I find potato chips funnier than brocoli in this context.

  9. marianwhit

    STILL all about dandelions honey bees? I encourage all readers here to explore the work of Dr. Heather Holm, who is the expert on the emerging understanding that we have many oligolectic bees…specialists of certain native plants (you know, like monarchs and milkweeds) that will likely never use a dandelion.

    These animals are being eliminated by the promotion in articles like this of ALL NON-NATIVE plants which spread without check into the native plant ecology once planted, that outcompete other plants through pollinator theft, and allelopathy with extra energy because they are not feeding any native predator, and are very hard to remove when you actually look at what is going on and decide you like your birds and a healthy ecology and to mix in some native plants to feed animals that need them.

    Clover is another invasive but useful for people plant that is being encouraged to play transformative roles in the degradation of what is left in our evolved ecology. I would ask you to ask yourself how much you don’t know. You don’t know how much you don’t know do you? But we DO know that our native pollinator diversity is declining, our native butterfly and moth diversity is declining, and our native bird life is declining.

    Why is this so hard? Because we have the inability to look beyond what we have romantic attachments to? Because dandelions are already everywhere we look and we are unwilling to dig them out (please don’t use herbicides)? Because we are incapable of admitting we might be wrong, or that we are willing to invest in actually comparing a monoculture of dandelions and a few other imported plants that are dominating our land to what the land offered the First Nations before we altered it so radically?

    If you only know and remove orchard grass, the clovers (Trifolium, Medicago, and Melilotus), and a a few of the many plants we brought in for purely ornamental purposes that are invasive such as the knapweeds, and remove them to make room for native plants, you will be amazed, because if you plant natives the rest of life here will come.

    The cumulative effects of these ever expanding introduced thugs PLUS our agriculture, roads, and habitat destruction mean we are getting it very wrong. Your father, rest his lovely soul, was starting to understand what he did not know and that science is now demonstrating…that is, when the science is about what is really going on out there and not just about putting food in our open mouths or trying to prove something for a lobby (such as honey or horticulture). There is more to life than us…and dandelion…what an insult to all of creation it is to be myopic and what an invitation spreading invasive species is for humans to be very lonely animals.

    • Mathieu Hodgson

      Thank you for your comment Marian! I often struggle to find scientific information on native flora and fauna, especially in the context of gardening. It seems as though a lot of research is being done on the production of cultivated ornamental plants and crops but little in terms of native plants. BTW, i have ordered a few books from Heather Holmes. Thanks for the heads up!

  10. Mary Cantin

    I really cannot agree that dandylions are the perfect symbol of pollinators. They are not native. Neither are honeybees. Before we understood that they are not native and that they take over native habitat I could understand supporting them, but I think we are beyond that now https://www.cleannorth.org/2021/04/08/the-common-dandelion-bee-saviour-or-pesty-invasive/?fbclid=IwAR26q8GHLat4BlaCYA4EncKh_b1r87ngxcY5dCbghjeiJB5mwzpa7ccPQi0#:~:text=Dandelions%20are%20a%20non%2Dnative,to%20their%20long%20tap%20root

  11. copy for another reply.
    List of Northern American nectar sources for honey bees
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Northern_American_nectar_sources_for_honey_bees#Flowers,_crops,_herbs,_and_grasses

    Plant type Nonscientific name Scientific name Begin Bloom Month End Bloom Month Monofloral honey Availability Source for honey bees / pounds of honey per acre
    T Maple[2] Acer 1 5 no feral major but temperature usually too cold
    T Red maple[2] Acer rubrum 1 5 no feral major but temperature usually too cold for bees to fly
    T Ohio buckeye[3] Aesculus glabra 4 5 no feral minor
    S Shadbush Amelanchier arborea 4 5 no feral minor, or major depending on location and weather.
    S, T Devil’s walkingstick Aralia spinosa 7 8 no feral minor

    • marianwhit

      Don’t forget willow, and mayflower. What are the cues for bees? Does the fragrance of introduced flowers from, say, Siberia call them to emerge early and then get zapped by cold? Do you know the answer to this question? If not, maybe stick with what has worked for thousands of years…in 300 years we have turned evolved organized systems upside down and that is a major reason we are facing the Anthropocene extinction. We “could” launch an effort to protect the world’s biodiversity, and admit we are not really experts, or we could keep selling destructive advice. I find large dandelions in the shade now…why? Because they are very, very adaptive and competitive. Think about this…please.

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