Have you heard about this Bee-friendly initiative? It’s one more easy way to help our communities become good stewards of our natural resources and secure a healthier future for ourselves and our children and the pollinators that assure us of abundant food supplies.
What is No Mow May? Why is it Important?
The goal of No Mow May is to allow herbicide and pesticide-free lawns to grow unmown for the month of May. This creates vitally important habitat and forage for early season pollinators, and is particularly important in urban areas where floral resources are often limited.
Is it Really Effective?
Two years ago in Appleton, WI, Lawrence University professors, Israel Del Toro and Relena Ribbons, undertook a research project to test whether leaving May lawns unmown would have an advantageous impact on the bee population. 435 registered property owners signed up to be part of the study.
“The research project collected data on the abundance (the number of individuals) and species richness (the number of species) of flowers and bees found in unmown yards of a subset of the properties participating in No Mow May. They then compared those numbers to the abundance and richness of flowers and bees found in nearby urban parks that are regularly mowed. The findings were impressive! Not only were the abundance and richness of bees higher in the yards of properties participating in No Mow May, but they were way higher. Participating yards had three-times higher bee species richness and five-times higher bee abundance than nearby parks that had been mowed. This study was published in 2020 and is available for free download online.”
Best Practices for Mowing Beyond the Month of May
We might think that if No Mow May is good, then No Mow June, July and August are good too. Not so fast…
“Other studies have looked into how reducing the frequency of mowing throughout the growing seasons impacts bees. In a recent experiment conducted by Susannah Lerman, a research ecologist with the USDA Forest Service’s Northern Research Station, Lerman and her collaborators explored whether different lawn mowing frequencies influenced bee abundance and diversity. The team mowed herbicide-free suburban lawns at different frequencies (every week, every other week, and once every three weeks) in Springfield, Massachusetts. The results of their study found bee abundance increased when lawns were mown every other week. Mowing every three weeks resulted in more than double the number of flowers available in lawns (mainly dandelions and clover), and increased bee diversity—yet lowered overall bee abundance versus the every-other-week strategy. The researchers hypothesize that, while the three-week mowing cycle left more flowers in the lawn, the length of the competing turfgrasses made the flowers harder to find. Lerman and her colleagues documented a staggering 93 species of bees, with supplemental observations bringing the total number to 111 bee species—nearly a quarter of all bee species native to the area!”
What does a Bee Lawn look like?
Just growing longer turf grass isn’t the point here. Beginning to alter the composition of your lawn to include more flowering species should be included in the plan.” A “bee lawn” may include Dutch clover (which captures nitrogen and helps feed the lawn) as well as other low-growing flowering plants such as creeping thyme (Thymus spp.), self-heal (Prunella vulgaris), and others. Some plants, such as native violets (Viola spp.) may already be present and should be encouraged as they are valuable host plants for fritillary butterflies.
Getting Community Support
It’s important to be strategic and intentional about your No Mow May. One of the major barriers we face when embracing a Now Mow May is the concern that our neighbors may view us as messy or neglectful. Here are some tips from the Xerces Society:
Educate your neighbors and passersby about your landscaping choices. Displaying a simple sign designating your yard as pollinator habitat can be the difference between it being seen as a neglected area to people viewing it as an important part of a thriving landscape. Xerces offers downloadable signs for No Mow May.
Engage with your city council, health department, or other local officials. Tell them what you are doing, why, and begin a conversation about how they can support natural landscapes in their community. This fact sheet from Penn State can help arm you with facts to overcome the common myths that have led to overly restrictive weed ordinances.
Suggest an “opt-in” program, such as a Natural Lawn Registration program to sidestep the need to re-write a health code ordinance. Under such a model, a homeowner may register their natural landscape with their local health department. The health department can then decline to fine registered properties as long as they are maintaining the natural landscape properly and not encouraging the spread of noxious weeds.
Maintain a mowed buffer. Keeping a mowed edge in front of or around a natural planting of a foot or two may be all that’s needed to define “lawn” from “garden” and keep you in step with local ordinances or Homeowner Association guidelines. Maintaining a tidy mowed edge also makes a busy natural planting look less overwhelming, and makes these spaces look intentional rather than neglectful. And remember, it’s better to start small than to not start at all. If not mowing your entire lawn seems too much for you the first year, why not consider carving out a smaller section of it to be a bee-friendly patch.