This is the time of the year if you live in the northern half of the United States, or anywhere in the northern hemisphere, to remind yourself that the sun will return, the light will lengthen, plants will pop up out of the earth spontaneously (I know I didn't plant them all), the green will return to the trees, and the color to lawns and gardens. Also birds will sing and bees will buzz.
Or will they? The last item on this happy roll call of nature's bounties has been the least certain of earth's annual bounties in recent years because of a frightening loss of bee population, almost certainly related to the use of chemical fertilizers, called "colony collapse disorder."
Bees are not primarily the nuisance creatures that we worried about stepping on in our bare feet, during the unsteady paradise of childhood. They are an essential partner in human food production.
Bees pollinate fruit trees, nut crops, berries, and many other of the plant foods we rely on.
After writing that sentence I wondered how many so I looked up www://honeylove.org/list-of-food/ and found... Alfalfa Okra Strawberries Onions Cashews Cactus Prickly Pear Apricots Allspice Avocados Passion Fruit Lima Beans Kidney Beans Adzuki Beans Green Beans and....
The list rolls down the screen -- and down and down and down... My finger grow tired scrolling. I literally cannot count them all. A few other favorites that catch my eye: mangoes, lemons, carrots, coffee -- what was that last one? Coffee?
Has everyone got the point?
Now let's focus on another item on the happy-thoughts-of-spring agenda, the category of common wild plants found, in field, farm, residential yards and public lawns that are abused under the misapprehension that they are "weeds." A weed, of course, is merely a plant in a place where we don't wish it to be. The word has no scientific definition. One of the most widely victimized of these wild common plants, under the libel of 'weed,' is the common dandelion.
Given the problematic decline of honey bees, it's time to turn our attention on the role of the dandelion in the 'balance of nature.'
Writing a couple springs ago, Kate Bradbury of the newspaper The Guardian put the case this way:
"A few weeks ago I walked past a lawn which hadn’t yet had its first spring cut. It was awash with bright yellow dandelions, and each one was peppered with several pollen beetles, perhaps enjoying their first meal of the year. A week later the dandelions were buzzing with bees, but a few days after that, this little patch of wildflowers had been razed – what happened to the pollen beetles and the bees?"
Experts on the subject tell us dandelions are simply the honey bee's most important spring flower. In fact beekeepers traditionally look to the timing of dandelion season as an important marker of honeybee success. After a hive survives the winter, as the beekeeper surely hopes it does, the keeper knows the bees won't starve if they can manage to hang on until dandelions bloom in early springs. That means May, in Massachusetts, with some early starters hoisting those yellow petals in April.
"Each flower consists of up to 100 florets, each one packed with nectar and pollen," Bradbury writes. "This early, easily available source of food is a lifesaver for pollinators in spring."
Dandelions are a lifeline for honey bees, whose continued survival largely depends on wild flowers.
Unfortunately,in the minds of many property owners dandelions are seen as the enemy of the perfect lawn. And they're a determined and resourceful enemy. Their deep tap roots are hard to remove -- you fail to 'get all of it' and the thing grows back -- and the plant has the ability to plant itself in cracks in the pavement, rock piles, cement walls, or your neighbor's yard, from which stronghold its seeds come wafting back into yours.
There's yet another libel from which dandelions suffer. Calling them 'weeds' is bad enough, but some elements of the native-plant police consider them "invasives."
Dandelions, and a host of other Old World plant colleagues, arrived in this continent along with the Pilgrims, the Boston Puritans and all the other English-speaking colonists; plus the Dutch, Swedish, German, Scottish and Irish settlers of the European migration.
Pointing out that the dandelion had settled in America by 1672, scientist Peter Del Tredici challenged the rigid notion of "invasives" in a recent article in the Boston Globe that raised the idea of "a statute of limitations for plants" that have clearly settled in (along with us) to become part of the local landscape:
"Can the ubiquitous dandelion ever achieve native status or will it forever be considered an alien? Adding a layer of complexity to these questions is the fact that modern molecular research has demonstrated than many European weeds have undergone genetic adaptation under North American conditions, and are now measurably distinct from their European ancestors."
He proposes that any plant growing successfully here before 1800 -- wildflowers and herbs like the dandelion, plantain and curly dock, along with basic European imports such as grains, flowering ornamentals, fruit trees and shade trees -- should be considered a naturalized “American archaeophyte.” Plants brought later can be classified as neophytes, he says, and 'non-native' until their statute of limitations is reached.
So here's the message for lawn lovers, backyard gardeners, lawn care companies -- lighten up on the weeding. We are all part of a natural inter-dependency: humans, plants, bees, birds, wildflowers, 'weeds.'
Your yard is part of some other living thing's habitat.
We have all grown up together in North America. Dandelions have been here since 1672. They are as native as we are, part of the American landscape.
And honey bees, who have adapted to their presence, depend on them. Just as we depend on bees.