Blooming in June: Allium

Common Name: Garden Onion, Field Garlic, etc.
Botanical Name: Allium cepa L., A. lineale
Plant Type: Perennial bulb
Typical Bloom Period: June-August
Nectar Usefulness: excellent
Pollen Usefulness: very good

Allium cepa, in the garden here at Love Me Some Honey

A national restaurant chain offered a free “Bloomin’ Onion” on Monday. Of course, I heard about it on Wednesday after. Had it been a blooming onion in the proper sense, Allium cepa in bloom, the reward would still be available. Onions and garlics, Allium spp., are blooming this month in Mecklenburg county, and our honey bees love them.

The Allium genus includes several hundred species of plants including garlics, leeks, onions, and chives. Most are perennial with true bulbs — a complete plant is inside the bulb, and reproduce vegetatively by dividing their bulbs underground. Further vegetative spread is accomplished by species such as A. lineale which develop bulbils at the top of the stalk with the flowers. These are not seeds; they are clones which will drop around the mother plant and grow into a clump.

Allium lineale, with a very full pond in the background.

Alliums also reproduce sexually. They grow a stalk with an inflorescence enclosed in a veined sheath called a spathe. The spathe opens to expose a head of florets arrayed in a globe — this bloom pattern is called an umbel (think “umbrella”). Each floret is a perfect flower with prominent sepals. Pollinated flowers produce seeds in capsules.

The combination of bulb division, releasing bulbils, and producing seeds is a successful combination for Allium spread. A. lineale — field garlic — shows up and forms clonal clumps in pastures, lawns and unkempt fields. It is listed as a noxious weed in several states — “noxious” being a legal designation to authorize intentional control/eradication efforts against an invasive weed. Dairy farmers do not like field garlic, as it taints the flavor of the milk. Beekeepers don’t mind quite as much.

Honey bees love Allium species because the nectar contains a high concentration of sugars. Many surveys find onion and garlic nectar to be at least around 50% sugar (1:1 sugar to water), and as much as 75% sugar (3:1). Allium florets secrete a high volume of nectar, and most species continue secretion for as long as 144 hours, until the tepals and stamens wilt. So a foraging bee which finds a patch of onions will likely dance excitedly upon return to the hive, and that rich nectar will be available for several days. In Garden Plants for Honey Bees, Peter Lindtner rates garden onions as an excellent nectar source and very good pollen source; he observes pollen pellets to be greenish-yellow.

Keep your eye out for “Bloomin’ Onion” and also for blooming onions. They really are a sweet treat, not to be missed.

Most of the information in the article was gathered from the following sources: Garden Plants for Honey Bees
by Peter Lindtner;
Publisher: Kalamazoo : Wicwas Press, 2014.

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