In the lazy, hazy days of summer, a bumblebee flits from flower to flower, its quiet buzz barely audible above the steady roar of cars and trucks on the nearby expressway, racing off to school, work, shopping malls and restaurants. Ten years ago, the lawn at Washington Conservation Center in Oakdale, Minnesota was a copy, paste and repeat of every other property in the surrounding business park – sterile turf with a few uninspiring foundation plantings, surrounded by a moat of rocks. Today, it is a pocket oasis with a tiny prairie, native gardens, a porous parking lot that allows rain to soak into the ground, and a small patch of bee-friendly lawn.
Estimates from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) indicate that wild bee populations declined 23% across the United States between 2008 and 2013. The rusty-patched bumblebee, now Minnesota’s state bee, was listed as a federally endangered species in 2017, and monarch butterflies were added to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List in 2022. Like canaries in a coalmine, these pollinating insects warn us of an ongoing, worldwide biodiversity crisis. As pollinators slip away, so too do flowering native plants, grassland birds like meadowlarks and bobolinks, five-lined skinks and Blanding’s turtles.
Happily, a movement is underway to reverse these trends and transform our residential landscapes into something that is a little softer, a little wilder, and much better able to support wildlife and clean water.
According to James Wolfin, an entomologist and conservation specialist with Twin City Seed, the best action property owners can take to support pollinators and other wildlife is to plant native trees, shrubs and flowering plants. “In the early spring, blooming trees and shrubs do most of the heavy lifting with regards to providing high quality forage for pollinators,” he says. Incorporating native flowers and grasses into garden areas and replacing some turf with native plants also helps to create pockets of habitat, improve soil health, and reduce environmental impacts from mowing, watering, pesticides and fertilizers.
In addition to planting native trees and gardens, however, many people are casting a critical eye towards their lawns and thinking of creative ways to transform these patches of green into something truly full of life.
No Mow May is one strategy to gain popularity in recent years. The campaign asks people to simply stop mowing for the month of May, and allow low-growing flowering plants like violets, clover and dandelions to proliferate. One major benefit to No Mow May is that it helps to disrupt the conventional 1950s landscape aesthetic that calls for tidy, green lawns all in a row. However, Wolfin and other biologists urge people to keep moving beyond No Mow May toward a year-round yard that is water, wildlife, and pollinator friendly.
“It’s the ecological equivalent of opening a fast-food restaurant on every corner – for a short amount of time,” write Sheila Colla, Lorraine Johnson, and Heather Holm in a 2022 article for Rewilding Magazine. Instead, the authors recommend that people focus on nurturing native plants and fighting off invasive species in their yards to begin repairing natural ecosystems.
Wolfin also notes that people can provide better forage for native bees by enhancing their existing lawns with Trifolium repens (Dutch white clover), Prunella vulgaris ssp. lanceolata (self-heal), Thymus serpyllum (creeping thyme), Symphyotrichum lateriflorum (calico aster), and Coreopsis lanceolate (lance-leafed coreopsis). In a recently published study with researchers at University of Minnesota, he evaluated test plots at 16 Minneapolis parks and found that those with self-heal, creeping thyme, and clover supported the highest diversity of native bees, but even patches of lawn with just clover provided a major boost to pollinators.
In addition to incorporating low-growing flowering plants, Wolfin also advises people to use slow-growing, drought-tolerant turf-grass species like fine fescues in order to reduce the need for mowing, watering, and chemicals. In a nod to the popular No Mow May movement, he calls this strategy “Slow Mow Summer”.
Next week Monday, April 3, -7:30pm Wolfin will co-teach a free webinar on Bee Lawns and Lawn Alternatives, in partnership with the East Metro Water Resource Education Program. The workshop will provide advice on how to transition a conventional lawn to a bee-friendly or slow-mow landscape and will include recommendations and resources to get started. Learn more and register at tinyurl.com/beelawn2023.