Weeds and wings in spring

Sweat bee on a hairy bittercress flower

I know that early spring flowers are important for early-emerging pollinators, but I never really paid much attention to the relationships they have with each other until this year. Lately, with all the early blooming weeds (that most people loathe to see in their yards, but that I’ve come to know and love for their edibility and medicine), I’ve noticed a lot of those early pollinators – bees and butterflies, especially – enjoying the flowers of these sweet little weeds. Bumble bee queens and mining bees are some of the first to emerge in late winter/early spring.

Some early-emerging bees, such as the spring beauty bee, are pollen specialists, using only nectar and pollen from one or two specific species of flowers. Spring beauties have white flowers with pink stripes and produce a light pink-colored pollen and the sporing beauty bees love them. About 25% of the 770 species of bees that live on the East coast are pollen specialists. That means it’s important for us as homeowners and gardeners to nurture some of these early-blooming weeds and wildflowers in our landscapes.

Spring beauty bee on spring beauty flower – Photo by Steve Burt: https://www.flickr.com/photos/steveburt1947/7015838409/

During my childhood I remember my grandmother pointing out various weeds in the yard – dandelions, chickweed, Johnny jump-ups, sorrel, violets, creasy greens. Some native, others not, but all were the flowers I remember showing up earliest in spring – the ones that brought me joy and hope and made me know that winter was almost over. She knew which ones were edible and which were not. She was a gardener and also understood the importance of pollinators for making our food.

Many years later, as I returned home for visits, I noticed a lack of weeds or that the weeds had been sprayed with herbicide or pulled up. My dad didn’t share my grandmother’s fondness for the early-flowering weedy plants. He, like many folks, considered them a nuisance. Something that detracted from the neat and tidy look of his flower gardens and mulch beds. I helped him pull many a clump of chickweed from the mulch.

Chickweed

But lately, I’ve begun to more fully recognize and understand the delicate and important relationships the early blooming wildflowers and weeds have with the winged bees and butterflies of early spring. These biological pairings are critical to the survival of the pollinators, increasing their effectiveness and efficiency. The specialist bees need their species of flowers to survive and thrive. We need the bees to pollinate our trees and flowers and food plants. North Carolina has the most specialist bee species of any state on the East Coast (139 species). Therefore, it is critical that those of us living here plant and nurture their pollen and nectar sources, even if they are weeds.

Hairy bittercress is neither hairy nor bitter, but is a great nectar and pollen provider

Bumble bees need hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta).

A bee enjoying the henbit

Purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum) and henbit (Lamium amplexicaule), both members of the Mint family, are wild weeds loved by bumblebees and honeybees. Henbit makes a particularly good honey 🙂

Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) are a good nectar source for bees and butterflies, though produce pollen lower in protein than suitable for most bees.

Chickweed

Chickweed (Stellaria sp.) is a crucial source of nectar and pollen for bees and butterflies (and a yummy superfood for humans).

Bluets

Just this week I saw my first flurry of butterflies at Mason Farm Preserve. Spring azures, cabbage sulfurs, and Eastern commas were all attentive to the early weedy flowers. Tiny little bluets play host to azure butterflies, carpenter bees, green metallic bees and humbleflies.

Wild bee visits a wild strawberry at Mason Farm Preserve

Even the tiny wild strawberry flowers are attractive to wild bees in spring.

The pea-like flowers of the redbud – food for early pollinators as well as people

Ground-dwelling flowers aren’t the only important early bloomers for pollinators. Redbuds (Cercis canadensis) – a sweet understory tree that blooms before the taller trees leaf out in spring – are an important source of nectar and pollen for carpenter bees, bumble bees, mason bees, Halictid bees, and blueberry bees. Their clusters of tiny pink flowers can be nibbled by people for a sweet little dose of Vitamin C.

Although our human routines and habits have changed amid this coronavirus pandemic, nature still marches on, carrying out its ancient rituals, moving forward in the best way it can, demonstrating its interdependence. Those are lessons we can all use right now.

Stay healthy. Take a deep breath. Enjoy the nature around you.

2 comments

  1. Reminds me of childhood in New Hampshire playing outside in what we called the “high grass”… we would trump out a few “houses” in the tall grassy field . Then we used the “weeds” around us as pretend salads. Ee sucked the succulent sweetness from the flowering White Dutch clover, tasted the green grass strands as we used them to make music while blowing as we stretched them tightly between our palms and thumbs. We used broadleaf plantain as mini corn on the cobs the leaves as lettuce……such is the imagination of children…a splendid thing.

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