No Way No Mow May

We made it to June. Collective sigh. Mankind saved the bees. Those who didn’t mow in May can sit back in grateful appreciation of their gallant efforts and wait for the next opportunity to save something.

No Mow May, which began in the UK and was heralded by Appleton, Wis. has taken off across the country. It’s promoted by Bee City USA, an affiliate of the Xerces Society, an insect advocacy group. Towns pay the Xerces Society to get bragging rights as “Bee City.” The fee is based on population.

Lawns are a target because they take up 2 percent of the land, making them the largest irrigated crop in the US. We have a love affair with our lawns, according to Bee City USA. That’s not nice for bees, I mean pollinators. You got a lawn that you take pride in? You may be part of the problem.

Why the need to save the bees? In 2006, experts noticed an abnormal phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). It happens when the drones abandon the queen, leaving them with abundant food and a few nurse bees to care for the babies.

According the the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), there are a wide range of stressors involved in CCD: pests, diseases, pesticides, pollutants/toxins, nutritional deficits, habitat loss, effects of climate variability, agricultural production intensification, reduced species or genetic diversity, and pollinator or crop management practices. According to me, it’s a complex issue.

“Pollinators are essential to the production of many of the micro- nutrient rich fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and oils we eat. In fact, close to 75 percent of the world’s crops producing fruits and seeds for human consumption depend, at least in part, on pollinators for sustained production, yield and quality. The diversity of food available is largely owed to animal pollinators,” writes the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations on the site “Why Bees Matter.”

Bees eat pollen and nectar from plants. By going from plant to plant to collect food to feed the hive, they unwittingly spread pollen (pollinating) and secure crop health and maintaining healthy ecosystems for plants, humans, and bees. Bees are a big deal and really complex little buggers.

The USDA reports that no CCD has been reported in the past few years, citing that the focus on pollinator health has been beneficial and there are now 2.8 million honey bee hives living in the U.S.

Pollinators aren’t limited to the 20,000 species of wild bees. Moths, flies, wasps, beetles and butterflies and some animals pollinate plants. Vertebrate pollinators include bats, non-flying mammals, including several species of monkey, rodents, lemur, tree squirrels, olingo and kinkajou, and birds such as hummingbirds, sunbirds, honeycreepers and some parrot species.

No Mow May makes me wonder: does skipping a month of mowing do more than make people feel good about their previous sins of commission? There are obvious flaws in the catch-phrase movement: is one month enough? What happens to habitats allowed to develop until May 31 once the mower blades come out? If lawns are 2 percent of lawns how many lawn owners need to participate in order to make a difference? What about all the pollinators that aren’t bees like butterflies and birds? Are the weeds you allow unfettered making their way to your neighbor’s lawn causing them to use more pesticides?

Obviously it’s crucial we don’t revisit CCD but what impact does No Mow May have on this complex issue? A movement with a hashtag and proud yard signs is guaranteed to raise my skeptical red flags.

What is the impetus around 2 percent of the land? A well-kept lawn is usually a lawn that doesn’t permit flowers to grow in it, which are attractive to bees and other pollinators. There are lots of lawns but a steep decline in in wildflower meadows, according the site.

They state some possible drawbacks: regular mowing keeps grass blades the optimal height for photosynthesis; tall grass increases insects like ticks, and grass that is too tall can droop and smother grass and lead to fungus and other diseases. It can be unattractive, and there may be local ordinances against it.

Instead, they counter, plant pollinator friendly flower beds or leave an unmown meadow corridor in your yard, create a flower bed with native plants since some pollinators can’t eat “foreign” plants. Bees like blue, pink/purple, and yellow flowers. Butterflies like red, yellow, orange, and pink/purple flowers.

In her GardenRant blog, Susan Harris shares her skepticism over No Mow May proponents even suggesting they are anti-lawn zealots. The movement reminds her of a prior movement from the National Wildlife Federation called “Leave the Leaves,” which advocated for homeowners not to rake their leaves in the fall. It was a nice slogan but not a good idea because omposting takes years for some leaves and will result in suffocation of plants and lawns. And not all plants are the same, she says. Some will be killed by winter-long leaf coverage.

GardenRant says No Mow May advocates do not consider some “pesky details:” lawns may not even have flowers that appear in May; if pollinated are these the kinds of plants desired; and the need to weigh the risk of damaging thick, healthy weed-free lawn by waiting.

Don’t assume that plants blooming in the lawn is beneficial to pollinators. But if lawn plants are attractive to bees, you have to balance the turf mix percentage, the grass : blooming forbs ratio. If the lawn is mostly grass, not mowing is very profitable for insects (not necessarily bees), but letting the grass get too long between mowings isn’t good for the grass itself.

Another blogger, The Impatient Gardener, says that dandelions, the highly touted savior of the bees, are not a great food source for the native bees. They do most of the pollinating, not the non-native honey bee. Dandelions are not native to North America. Native trees and shrubs that flower earlier than dandelions are better.

This site suggests that rather than giving your lawn mower a 31-day rest, turn a small patch of your lawn or garden into a native wildflower garden that will feed bees from spring to fall and will be far more attractive than shaggy weeds.

Other practical suggestions to ensure pollinator health are to stop applying herbicides, plant native trees that provide more food than any lawn could, or incorporate more native plants. Set your mower level high enough to allow the violets and clover to survive a mowing.

Native plants have more impact on bees so why not promote “Plant Natives May.” Instead, allowing an overgrown eye sore that’s a haven for insects during May should instead be called Lyme Tick May.

Is the focus on bees, dandelions, and lawns an over generalization? Is it a singular oversimplification? I think there is evidence. I won’t go so far as to say it’s another crusade to make people feel good about being for something while being against something else.

The opponents of No Mow May can’t fit their data into a slogan or clever hashtag, but they have a variety of solutions to a complex problem. #viewpointdiversity

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: