Beekeeper, Mary O’Riordan discusses the importance of garden weeds to the lifecycle of the bee and in the long run, to our biosphere.
Dandelions have the dubious reputation of being one of the most pernicious weeds, pests, and a blight on all our gardens, but I implore you to hold back on spraying them or mowing them down because a whole range of garden wildlife depends on them.
A couple of weekends ago, I was travelling through counties Galway and Clare, returning from a beekeeping conference at NUI Galway, and the fields and roadsides were awash with the resplendent bright yellow of festive dandelions.
I was wishing that I had my beehives in those fields for a few weeks.
When I arrived back in Co Cork though, I couldn’t help notice that the road verges were dying back after being sprayed and of course the verdant green pastures, prime picking for our dairy herd, were denuded of any form of weed or bright insect attracting colours.
On top of this the M8, N40 and N25 around Cork all had their road verges and grass islands mown to a hair’s breath of the soil. So much for creating the pollinator highways along our road networks as required under the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan?
In late April and early May dandelions are buzzing with bees foraging for nectar and pollen as their respective sources of carbohydrates and protein.
However, at this moment thousands of hectares of such wildflower habitats are being erased under the blades of our lawn mowers, and the bees, beetles and butterflies are going hungry.
I will concede, as a weed, it’s one of the most unpopular as dandelion tap roots are notoriously hard to dig out, the plants have an almost unrivalled knack of propagating themselves, including in walls and cracks in paving where nothing else would live and it seems to last forever.
The dandelion is bold and brash and unrelenting. But that is why it is brilliant. It’s virtually everywhere and nearly always in flower; it’s the pollinator’s best friend.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) was named after the French dent de lion, meaning lion’s tooth, which refers to its toothed leaves. Other names for dandelion include pee-the-bed, wet-the-bed and pissy-beds, which refer to its effectiveness as a diuretic.
The young leaves are edible and indeed make a good salad or soup.
The leaves are loaded with vitamins and antioxidants, the roots can be ground into a coffee substitute, as happened during the war years, and the flowers can be made into wine (just leave some for the wildlife).
Historically too, dandelions have been cherished for their nutritional value, medicinal purposes, and beauty.
They were known to the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Chinese.
Dandelion sap was said to cure warts, while a tea made using its leaves was supposed to help calm stomach aches.
Herbalists apparently still use dandelions to treat skin conditions, asthma, low blood pressure, poor circulation, ulcers, constipation, colds and hot flushes.
While dandelions flower for most of the year, the dandelion’s peak flowering time is from late March to May.
The dandelion is probably the single most valuable early spring wildflower.
If a hive of bees survives the winter, beekeepers know the bees will be safe from starvation if they can stay alive until dandelions bloom.
Honey bees flock to dandelions in the early spring as each flower consists of up to 100 florets, each one packed with nectar and pollen.
Dandelions produce an abundance of the sugary nectar to supply energy to the bee while its pollen is moderately nutritious.
There is a small problem with the dandelion pollen, it seems, in that dandelions are missing some of the amino acids needed to manufacture protein.
A bee needs a full complement of the necessary amino acids if it is going to make all the proteins it needs to raise young bees.
Of the set of amino acids that bees need, dandelion pollen falls short of four: arginine, isoleucine, leucine, and valine.
Researchers have found that honey bees fed dandelion pollen alone have low success at raising brood.
Though it’s not a complete food it will keep the wolf from the door and the honeybee will visit different early spring flowering plants for the other necessary amino acids. Indeed bees, like humans, need a varied diet from a number of sources to be healthy.
The dandelion doesn’t normally produce what we beekeepers call a ‘surplus’, ie enough nectar to produce honey above and beyond what the bees will use for themselves, so you won’t generally see dandelion honey for sale, but it gives the bees a huge boost and adds to the health and wellbeing of the hive.
So a very simple, easy way to help the wildlife in your area, and of course honeybees, is to refrain from killing the dandelions in your lawn or even take a couple of weeks off from mowing the lawn this month, or at least raise the cutting height of the mower.
Maybe someone could also tell the National Roads Authority and the county councils to abide by the All Ireland Pollinator Plan and hold back on mowing and chemical poisoning grass verges for a few weeks?
Recipe for dandelion salad:
Dandelions can be a little bitter, but they are a delicious and healthy first spring green.
Cut the greens close to the root.
Young greens are tastiest and wash thoroughly in multiple rinsings.
Serve the greens with a sweet vinaigrette [2 tbls sugar, 2 tbls vinegar, 1 tbl oil, 1 tsp mustard], spring onions and a chopped hardboiled egg.
The sweetness in the dressing helps to temper any bitterness in the green.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved