Have you heard the claims that dandelions are an essential first food for bees in spring? Or are they just lowly weeds? We looked into the research to see what role they play in our gardens and whether the hype from fans or foes is warranted.
Do you have a personal gardening ethos? Here’s why “gardening organically” is hard to define but helpful to ponder.
Dandelions: Garden Weed or Bee Food or Both?
It’s been decades since dandelions were declared public enemy number one in the lawn care world. I remember countless tv ads as a kid urging us to get rid of these unsightly beasts lest we become the disgrace of the neighborhood. And bylaws started popping up to reinforce this.
Knowing how well-loved dandelions are by children it seems possible we’ve been taught to despise these cheerful, yellow-flowering plants. I’ve always wondered if the herbicides came first and, after persistently convincing us these plants are beasts, a big, commercial market was born. If so, it was a savvy choice because dandelions are everywhere and they’re not going anywhere.
So, are dandelions really a big problem? Or do they have some value?
With all we know today about the need for biodiversity for healthy eco-systems, it’s the lawn itself—and everything we throw at it to keep it plush and green—that really deserves scrutiny.
And, despite the push to poison, dandelions have always had a fan club calling for a truce on the use of unnecessary herbicides.
If you spend time on Facebook or other social media, you’ve probably also seen catchy memes attempting to change the reputation of dandelions from lowly weed to bee superfood, essentially reversing the weed product messaging—anything to stop the collateral damage sprays cause and let these plants “bee”.
The most common pro-dandelion claim I see says you must not get rid of dandelions because they are the first (and only) food available for bees emerging in late winter and early spring. And without them, the bees are doomed. And if they’re doomed, we’re doomed.
But is this true?
We fact-checked the claims and—no surprise—the truth lands squarely in-between, showing they are neither a vital bee superfood nor the poison-worthy beast that either camp claims. I’ve explained it in the answers to common dandelion questions (below).
Common Dandelion | Taraxacum officinale
Flowering herbaceous perennial plant
From the French “dent de lion” = tooth of the lion.
- Family | Asteraceae – same family as asters, daisies, sunflowers.
- Native to Europe and Asia.
- Location | Temperate regions throughout the world.
- Status | Nuisance plant or weed, or lunch, depending on who you ask.
- Wildlife | Food source for some butterfly and moth (Lepidoptera) caterpillars, birds (Linaria spp.), and bees.
- Culinary uses | Salad greens, wine, tea, coffee substitute, jam, honey substitute.
- Reproduction | Asexual by seed (apomictic) —no pollination required.
- Seeds | Each plant produces up to 10 flowers, each flower produces 150 to 200 seeds.
- Germination soil temperature | 10-25°C (50-75°F) | 14 to 21 days.
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Dandelions: Common Questions Answered
1Are dandelions native to North America?
They were introduced to Canada, the United States, Australia, and other countries from Europe hundreds of years ago for use as a medicinal herb.
2Are dandelions invasive?
The word ‘invasive’ is used for plants that irreversibly alter our eco-system, causing environmental or economic harm.
Aggressive plants spread quickly but are not detrimental to the environment or economy.
The word used for dandelions is nuisance. They are perennial and spread by seed—and they’re here to stay—but they do not rate as aggressive or invasive.
That said, I have seen the word ‘invasive’ used in literature for farmers where unwanted plants in fields have other ramifications.
3Are dandelions weeds?
The definition of a weed is all about location.
- a wild plant growing where it is not wanted and in competition with cultivated plants.
By this definition, a dandelion is a weed if you did not intentionally plant it, is unwanted, and competes with your other plants or grass lawn.
In another location it’s just a non-native wild plant and introduced species.
4Are dandelions the first food available for bees in spring?
Dandelions are not the sole, first food for bees. If they were, we’d be in trouble.
First food sources will vary depending on what’s growing in any given area but it would be highly unusual to only have dandelions in bloom and nothing else. That would be one desolate landscape!
The most over-looked early food sources for bees are early pollinating trees, providing masses and masses of pollen—much more than dandelions—and often weeks earlier. Anyone with seasonal pollen allergies can attest to that.
It’s amazing to see the volume of bees visiting tree blossoms on a sunny spring afternoon. We see this with maples, elms, poplars, cherry, and our giant, old pussywillow tree.
Early spring-flowering herbaceous plants are also bee magnets. This lists early flowering bulbs that bees love.
5Do dandelions provide nectar or pollen for bees?
Here in Canada and the United States we have both native and non-native bees (honey bees). Most studies tend to focus solely on honey bees because they are important pollinators in agriculture. But the behaviors of honey bees are not representative of bees in general and it’s the native bees that get overlooked both in research and garden pop culture.
There are studies dating back over 50 years—none more recent that we could find—showing that honey bees fed nothing but dandelion pollen do not do very well. As far as I know, there are no issues with the nectar: it’s the pollen that is lower quality. That’s why it is sometimes called “junk food” or “snacks” for bees. But again, that’s just honey bees. If other pollinators were studied perhaps we’d find it is more nutritious for them. Or not.
6Should I plant dandelions for bees?
There are so many other bee-friendly plant options, and the dandelions do not need our help with propagation.
The Xerces Society, which works to conserve invertebrates including bees and butterflies, put out a book a few years ago called 100 Plants to Feed the Bees. Did dandelions make the Top 100? No! They aren’t even mentioned in the book. So there are at least one hundred better options to consider.
But does it hurt to have dandelions? Not that we know of, other than it’s taking up space a better choice could occupy.
7Are dandelions edible? Do they have any nutritional value?
Yes and yes.
People eat every part of the dandelion—from root to flower and everything in between—but be sure they are free of any herbicides or other sprays.
Dandelion has a bitter flavor that some people enjoy. Young, tender plants are less bitter than mature ones.
Foods made from dandelions include:
- Flowers – dandelion wine, jam, honey substitute
- Leaves – raw in salads, boiled, or sautéed, tea
- Taproot – roast for coffee alternative
Dandelion Greens | Nutritional Value
Dandelion leaves provide Vitamin A, K, and calcium, iron, magnesium, and more.
1 cup (55 grams), raw dandelion greens
- 25 calories
- 3 grams net carbs
- Water: 47.1 g / 55 g
- Vitamin A: 5588 IU (112% daily values)
- Vitamin C: 19.3 mg (32% daily values)
- Vitamin K: 428 mcg (535% daily values)
- Calcium: 103 mg (10% daily values)
And smaller amounts of various other vitamins and minerals.
8How do dandelions reproduce?
Dandelion flowers turn to seed. The seeds are dispersed by the wind and may germinate wherever they land.
Dandelions, specifically Taraxacum officinale—not all dandelion species— are among a small percentage of plants that can reproduce asexually without fertilization (“apomixis”) so no pollination is required . This means the plants you get from dandelion seeds are a clone of a single parent plant, not a genetic combination of two parent plants.
So why do dandelions bother to produce pollen if it’s not needed for their reproduction? Pollen was needed long ago in its evolutionary history and evolutionary habits die hard.
When do dandelions germinate?
Dandelion seed germinate when soil temperatures reach 10-25°C (50-75°F). Germination takes 2 to 3 weeks. Flowers appear between 50 and 110 days after sowing.
9How can I remove dandelions?
Due to the deep, thick taproot, to completely remove a dandelion you need to dig it up, getting every last part of the root out of the soil. A weeding fork can do a fairly good job of this. But, if the root breaks off in the ground, it will grow back.
Mowing dandelions will temporarily halt flowering but the taproot lives on and the stems, leaves, and flowers will grow back.
So, to sum it up, dandelions are not an essential bee superfood that we know of but bees do use them. There are very likely other better food sources around, so life will not end if you remove yours. The best option is to grow a diverse selection of native plants that support native bees and other wildlife.
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛