The Queens and the Dandies

Spring is right around the corner and that means the flowers are starting to bloom, and the queen bumble bees are starting to emerge from their overwintering sites. In bumble bees, only the queen survives the winter, surviving on fat stores from the previous summer. They commonly nest in abandoned rodent burrows, bird houses, and cavities below trees, stumps, and even houses. In the early spring, the queens emerge and begin searching for a new place to nest, build their colony, and most critically, for food. Here on the Palouse, there are not many flowers blooming yet (it snowed several inches just last weekend), but the bees are starting to fly. For these early working mamas, that means every flower available is a crucial food resource, both for her and her future offspring. Adult bumble bees feed on nectar, while their developing larvae (baby bees) eat pollen. Bumble bees can fly up to 20km distance from their nest to find food, but all that flying takes a toll. The energy required for flight must be fueled by more nectar, which may reduce the amount of time she can spend collecting pollen. Since the growth of the colony depends on available pollen stores, if she can't collect enough pollen, then she will not be able to produce many workers, and the overall growth of the colony will suffer throughout the growing season.

Bombus vosnesenskii worker on dandelion. Photo credit: Flickr creative commons, user born1945

Bombus vosnesenskii worker on dandelion. Photo credit: Flickr creative commons, user born1945

One of the most common questions I get asked is "how can I help the bees?" My best answer is to provide flowers for them. But in many cases, gardens aren't typically blooming (or even planted) at this point in the season, so what can you do to provide flowers? Answer: don't remove them. I'm sure you would never pick all the pretty flowers available, but what many people forget is that weeds are often flowers too. Dandelions are one of the most prolific, and hated yard and garden weed species, but for the early season bees, they are also one of the first food sources for bees. I know many people think dandelions make the garden look a bit unsightly but I think the bright yellow is lovely. However, if you must remove dandelions from your yard or garden, there is a prime time to remove them if you keep watch. When they are open and inviting and bright yellow, as shown above, this is when the flowers are useful for bees (and other flower visitors like the ladybird beetle shown at the bottom of this post. When the flowers get to the fluffy stage, then they are ready to spread seed, and this is too late to remove them (unless you want more dandelions).

The best stage in the dandelion development to remove them from your yard (please mow rather than spray an herbicide), is between the flowering and the seed stage, when the dandelions look like this:

This B. vosnesenskii stopped for a rest on a closed dandelion flower. The pollen and nectar aren't available any longer during this stage of the flowers' development, but they haven't set seed yet. This is the prime period for removing (by mowing or digging) these flowers from your yard. Photo by Rachel Olsson.

This B. vosnesenskii stopped for a rest on a closed dandelion flower. The pollen and nectar aren't available any longer during this stage of the flowers' development, but they haven't set seed yet. This is the prime period for removing (by mowing or digging) these flowers from your yard. Photo by Rachel Olsson.

  At the above closed stage, the flowers have been pollinated and the seeds are developing, but they are not yet ripe, so removing dandelions during this time will have given the bees the opportunity to access the nectar and pollen resources, but will give you the peace of mind of not seeing those fluffy little seeds flying around. 

Bees aren't the only beneficial insects to visit dandelions. Ladybird beetle visiting a dandelion. Photo by Rachel Olsson.

Bees aren't the only beneficial insects to visit dandelions. Ladybird beetle visiting a dandelion. Photo by Rachel Olsson.