written by: Kelley V Phillips, Outreach Coordinator
Queens awake in early spring.
Using short but sturdy legs, a queen bumblebee wiggles her way out of warming soil. With hibernation done at long last, it’s time to find some food. Looking around with compound eyes, she seeks her favorite color–purple. Her driving instinct to find the ultraviolet beckoning of purple blossoms must mean sweet nectar. Wings buzzing, she lifts off and flies for 10 seconds. No purple flowers. After resting, she flies again, but for 20 seconds. No purple flowers.
Desperate and hungry, she lands on a soft pad. It doesn’t have the violet light she is looking for but it definitely holds some flower nectar. Food! In all directions, as far as she can see and smell there are these wide yellow flowers. Huzzah! she must think, there’s something to feast on while she grows stronger.
Though this bumblebee may not recognize Taraxacum officinale, the common dandelion, it has saved her nonetheless. Dandelions are easily one of the most helpful plants to many pollinators. In early spring, the flowers can go from seed to bloom in days. Fortunately for over 100 species of insects, including the humble bumblebee, that timeline aligns with the end of overwintering and hibernation.
Each flower has 40-100 florets, smaller flowers, each with pollen and nectar. Wildlife can fill up without spending more energy than necessary traveling to other flowers. Along with our queen bumblebee, solitary bees and honeybees visit dandelions for food. Hovering flies, beetles and butterflies use them as well. The flower’s long growing season ensures food for pollinators like the holly blue butterfly whose species emerges in early spring and again at the end of summer.
The dandelion’s seeds are nutritious food for birds such as goldfinches, greenfinches and redpolls. Hummingbirds use soft dandelion down in to line their small nests. The low-growing leaves are a safe shady space for beetles and lizards. The queen bumblebee also spends time on the jagged-edged leaves resting between short, energy-draining flights.
Creatures beneath the ground benefit from the dandelion’s roots. The long taproot pulls nutrients like calcium and potassium from deep in the soil. These nutrients become available to other plants whose roots provide food for voles, small burrowing mammals. Thick, hardy roots loosen packed soil which makes movement for worms easier. The worms, in turn, provide food for birds and increase soil health.
The roots of this plant can interconnect with roots from other plants. This network strengthens the ground from erosion as water passes over the soil. Minimizing the amount of soil that enters a waterway keeps sediment levels low. A high amount of sediment, or particles of soil, in the water make it difficult for fish to “breathe.”
It’s late summer now and the dandelion’s blooming season is starting to slow. The queen bumblebee has established a hive in the hollow of a fallen oak tree. Nearby is the meadow of soft yellow flowers that provided safety and food for her before her preferred native flowers bloomed. In a few months, new queens will overwinter with the promise of dandelions nearby.
Kelley V Phillips is the Outreach Coordinator for Red-tail Land Conservancy. Her work in community engagement inspires excitement and wonder in nature through education and tangible experiences.