There are no dandelions in my yard this spring. Embarrassed by the yellow line of demarcation that separated our lawn from that of our meticulous neighbor’s at this time last year, we signed up with a local lawn care service for herbicide applications that would kill off the offending weed.
But one person’s weed is another person’s flower, and that flower is a dozen insects’ carry-out window.
My zeal for the ideal lawn is aiding and abetting the decline of our honey bee population. Those persistent dandelions, blooming and going to seed long before most other plants get going, are a major source of pollen and nectar, the protein and carbohydrates of the bee family.
So is clover, but who sees clover in yards anymore? I remember how careful I was, running barefoot in the grass as a kid, to avoid stepping on clover’s round, tufted white flowers, knowing that I’d likely get stung by a bee if I did.
But clover, like dandelions, are considered a nuisance, an undesirable. There are plenty of herbicides around to kill it, including those used by my lawn care company, because there is no white clover in my lawn.
There are no bees, either.
That may be a boon for my barefoot forays through the backyard, but it’s a bust for agriculture. More than $15 billion a year in U.S. crops are pollinated by bees, including apples, cantaloupes, cucumbers and almonds, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
In California, where 80 percent of the world’s almonds are cultivated, almond growers hire about 1.7 million hives to pollinate their almond trees each February. The global economic cost of bee decline — which, in the U.S., is believed to be nearly one-third of our honey bee colonies — are estimated to be as high as $5.7 billion a year, according to the NRDC.
Last winter, Ohio’s apiaries lost 50.07 percent of their bees, according to a survey by the Bee Informed Partnership. The typical winter loss is around 15 percent to 20 percent.
Pesticides are a major cause of the problem. They may not kill bees directly, but researchers have found they can kill them slowly, through residue build-up in the honey, pollen and comb of a hive. Viruses and pests like foulbrood and varroa mites are also wiping out colonies, and several beekeepers across Ohio are breeding bees with a better resistance against these killers.
But loss of forage, like my dandelions, “is also a key factor,” said Barbara Bloestcher, the state inspector of the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s Apiary Program. “A colony needs an acre of forage. There are some parts of Ohio where we don’t have enough forage and the bees are undernourished.”
Our extensive corn and soybean fields don’t count.
“They offer no nutritional value to bees,” explained Mike Dosick with the Great Grand Lake Beekeepers Association. “They’ll pollinate the plants, but it doesn’t help them at all.”
What helps is wildflowers, like those, um, weeds that grow at the edges of fields and highways and insist on ruining our lawns.
“These are the early spring flowers that our bees need,” said Michele Colopy, program director of the Pollinator Stewardship Council, a nationwide advocacy organization. “They’re coming out of the hive having nearly eaten all of their winter food.”
She lives in Akron and is so committed to improving habitat for pollinators that she killed the grass in her front lawn and planted wildflowers instead.
“Unless you’re grazing goats, grass isn’t feeding anything,” she said. “Nothing except carbon emissions and lawn mowing.”
I’d like to be as brave. I’ll have to work up to it. In the meantime, though, I can rethink my need for a weed-free lawn. And I can resist the urge to yank out the dandelions that are growing near my vegetable beds, where the lawn care guy didn’t spray, until after they’re pollinated and the flowers have started to go to seed.
Last week, I watched as a member of the maintenance crew at The Lima News mowed the lawn, a lawn that was speckled yellow with hundreds of dandelions. In the wake of his mower, the lawn spooled out pure green. The primacy of grass was restored. The ideal lawn was maintained.
I felt a little sad as I watched. It was a sadness more for the springtimes of my childhood than it was for the bees. Because, truth be told, a few days earlier I had walked in that huge, dandelion-studded lawn, looking for honey bees.
I didn’t find a single one.
Reach Amy Eddings at 567-242-0379 or on Twitter, @lima_eddings.