To spray or not to spray?

Homeowners can tackle weeds without endangering honeybees

by Melissa Martin

As Northeast Ohio begins to take on a familiar green hue following this year’s snowy winter, spring’s longer days and warmer temperatures are unquestionably a welcome sight.

What’s not so pleasant this time of year for many, though, is a glimpse of dozens of golden dandelions ruining the look of a perfectly manicured lawn. As tempting as it can be to head to the closest garden center for a broadleaf weed killer, Robert Najjar, president of the Summit County Beekeepers Association, said the best thing homeowners can do both for their lawns and the environment is take a deep breath and wait a few weeks.

“While most of us look at dandelions only as invasive, perennial weeds, they actually play a crucial role in the health of bees and butterfly larvae in April and May,” Najjar said.

He explained that native pollinators like honeybees rely on dandelions in the early days of the warmer months because they are some of the only flowers in bloom, providing both the pollen and nectar needed as bees come out of their months-long winter hibernation.

“By late May, more flowering plants are available as food sources for bees and other insects, so dandelions become less important for their diet,” Najjar explained. “But in those first few days of spring, the dandelions are vital for their survival.”

The dwindling bee population is becoming a growing concern at home and across the globe. Bees are one of the most important pollinators, a group of birds and insects that pollinate plants used in food supplies throughout the world. In the U.S. alone, honeybees are responsible for about $20 billion in food production and are necessary for pollinating many of the nation’s most plentiful crops, the American Beekeeping Federation reports. Some crops, including blueberries and cherries, are 90% dependent on honeybee pollination and one crop, almonds, depends entirely on them at bloom time.

The bee population’s decline is tied to the collapse of their colonies, which is due in part to exposure to herbicides and pesticides. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, homeowners use up to 10 times more chemicals per acre to treat their lawns than farmers use on crops. Green lawns free of dandelions and other weeds come at the expense of bees, who not only lose an important food source at this time of year and but are also inadvertently transporting hive-killing chemicals back to their colonies.

Spray wisely

Najjar said an ecologically minded solution is to allow dandelions to grow for the first part of the season, instead of immediately mowing them down.

In those situations where homeowners want to kill the weeds right away, the best thing they can do is avoid afternoon spraying, he added. When herbicides and pesticides are applied during that time, the chances of the bees taking those chemicals back to their hives is high.

“Worker bees will land on the dandelions not knowing the chemicals have been applied as they are looking for pollen and nectar,” Najjar said. “They will then bring that [chemical-laden] pollen and nectar back to their colonies and feed it to their larvae, which can kill them all.”

Najjar recommended homeowners wait until the evening hours to apply lawn chemicals, particularly those targeting dandelions, when bees aren’t as active. Additionally, he suggested using herbicides and pesticides in the granule form, because they degrade rapidly and reduce the likelihood that bees will interact with the chemicals. 

“I make sure to treat my lawn myself because I can do it in the evening and specifically target the weeds I’m looking to kill,” said Najjar, a beekeeper himself. “I also only do my front lawn to make sure that the back yard is safe when the bees are foraging.”

He also noted that homeowners should be careful to prevent weed products from spreading to unintended areas such as gardens, which may not affect the plants directly but could affect the bees as they visit those plants, and avoid spraying on windy days when the chemicals can drift.

Bonus points, he said, go to homeowners who intentionally grow pollinator plants and flowers native to Northeast Ohio. A selection of those plants can be found at most area garden centers. ∞