How exactly will allowing my lawn to grow benefit pollinators?
Mowing your lawn less allows flowering plants to bloom, providing bees and other pollinators with the nectar and pollen that they rely on to feed themselves as well as their offspring. This is the primary benefit, giving flowers a chance to bloom uninterrupted and in greater abundance. Longer grass can also provide other benefits to invertebrates including shelter. The more varied structure created by longer grass will support more than just bees, including ground beetles as well as some species of butterflies that use grasses as host plants. The fiery skipper and sachem are two examples of butterflies whose caterpillars utilize lawn grasses.
So, letting my lawn grow will be great for bees!
It won’t be great, but it will be better. Letting your lawn grow and having Dutch clover, dandelions, and other weeds flowering will mean there is something for bees to forage on, but many weeds are non-native, and don’t support a wide range of native bees. In addition, some lawn weeds may be invasive and need to be controlled. But it is a starting point for changing our neighborhoods into places that will support bees and other wildlife.
Given that my lawn is primarily turf grass and non-native weedy species, will I be spreading weeds by not mowing my lawn?
Because lawns are usually mown, the plants that grow there are species that tolerate those conditions. Both grasses and typical lawn weeds have buds that are low to the ground so they are able to resprout after each mowing and their roots tolerate the compacted soil that is caused by the frequent passing of the mower’s tires. Turfgrass and common lawn weeds may also grow in nearby compacted soil, but in general, they will not spread to other non-lawn areas, where different soil conditions and the presence of other perennial vegetation or tillage is beyond their “comfort zone.”
Will the flowers in my lawn support a lot of bees?
While lawns are traditionally maintained as primarily monocultures of one of a handful of species of often non-native grass, many lawns also include a variety of native and non-native flowering species. Common examples of flowers found in lawns include dandelions and Dutch clover, but you may also have native species of clovers, violets, and selfheal. The number of bees that your unmown lawn supports depends on the species and abundance of flowers intermixed with the grass. A lawn without any flowering plants won’t benefit bees while one rich in a diversity of native species will attract lots of bees. Non-native plant species will provide some nectar and pollen to bees, however native plants will attract and support a greater variety of native bee species. Since many of the thousands of bee species native to North America are specialists, relying on the specific plant species that they evolved alongside, it’s important to do what you can to increase native plants in your lawn.
People are strongly drawn to lawns and they are great for throwing a ball around or playing with our dog. What are some ideas for how to balance the desire for a lawn with creating habitat for pollinators and other wildlife?
The open expanses of yards and parks with a shorter layer of grasses and the shade of a few large trees are reminiscent of the savanna grasslands of early humans. These spaces offer some protection from the sun and a place to rest, relax, or play with an open vista that assures no imminent danger is nearby. Ecological anthropologists suggest that the deep human connection to savanna grasslands has shaped the way we design and manage lawns and parks. As your space and household needs allow, consider dedicating a smaller portion of your yard to lawn that is mowed. The spaces you’ve gained can be used to grow a range of native or non-invasive pollinator-friendly plants such as shrubs, flowers (annuals and perennials), a border of bunch grasses, vegetables, herbs, or berries. Another option for areas that won’t get a lot of foot traffic but where shorter vegetation or less mowing is valued, is to sow naturally short grasses or grass-like plants such as buffalo grass and rushes, as well as selfheal or violets.
Does using pesticides on my lawn negatively affect pollinators and other invertebrates using the habitat?
Unfortunately, common lawn and garden pesticides can harm pollinators and other invertebrates. Many of the insecticides you find on store shelves are broad-spectrum, meaning that they can harm a wide range of insects including important beneficials. Avoiding insecticide use is key to maintaining healthy pollinator habitat, but herbicides and fungicides can also have impacts so we recommend avoiding all pesticide use in yards and gardens. This ensures a healthy ecosystem for both your family and pollinators using your habitat. You can read more about pesticide-free pollinator gardening here.
What are the alternatives that will allow me to maintain an attractive lawn?
Turfgrass on its own does not provide food for pollinators. However, small changes in lawn management, encouraging a mix of grasses and low-growing flowering perennials, can make a big difference for pollinators. Flowering lawns are also lower-maintenance; rather than spending time and resources attempting to destroy all plants except grasses, a diversity of plants — including violets, selfheal, and clovers — are encouraged. Preventative maintenance strategies, such as ensuring aeration to support grass roots, and proper watering to keep lawns healthy can help limit weed growth. Manage any unwanted weeds through physical methods, and reseed areas where weeds are removed or turf has been damaged. To keep your lawn healthy, consider applying a thin layer of compost in the spring, and leaving grass clippings in place.
What can I do to educate my neighbors and passersby about my yard choices and how they benefit pollinators?
Taking the simple step of communicating why you’ve made the landscaping choices you have to your neighbors and other passersby can help others understand that by not mowing you have made an intentional decision to create habitat for wildlife rather than neglected your yard. Putting up signs can be an easy and effective way to educate others about the benefits of reducing mowing for bees and other pollinators. Signs may also spark conversations and encourage your neighbors and visitors to consider their own yard and actions they can take to create better habitat.