Every spring, a worldwide initiative gets going to help save essential pollinators like bees, butterflies, and moths. The campaign known as "No Mow May" calls for the simple act of refraining from cutting your lawn for the whole month of May. The goal is to let the grass grow, allow flowers to bloom, and provide food and shelter for newly emerging pollinators when these resources are usually scarce.
No Mow May was founded by members of a nonprofit called Plantlife in the United Kingdom. Members were concerned about the effects of lawn mowing, which utilizes fossil fuels, depletes vital resources like water, produces noise and air pollution, and leads to the loss of pollinator populations.
Pollinator numbers are declining worldwide. Several interconnected threats contribute to this troubling global trend, including habitat fragmentation, biodiversity loss, invasive species, air pollution, pesticide use, climate change, pathogens, parasites, and predators. Pollinators include birds, bats, butterflies, moths, flies, beetles, wasps, small mammals, and, most critically, bees. They are essential to our ecosystem and pollinate over 180,000 plant species and more than 1,200 crops. Three-fourths of the world's flowering plants need pollinators to help with pollination. And pollinators are responsible for one in every three bites of food you consume.
The main goal of No Mow May is to raise awareness about the need to support pollinators and how individuals can help. According to a 2005 study from NASA, turf grasses cover 40 million acres in the continental U.S. and are the single largest irrigated crop in the country. But, grass-only lawns lack floral biodiversity and nesting sites for bees and provide little benefit to wildlife. They are also often treated with pesticides and herbicides that harm bees and other invertebrates. When we think of habitat loss, we usually think of deforestation and muddy bulldozed construction sites, but acres of manicured lawn can be just as devoid of resources for pollinators.
Lawns usually consist of grasses grown for ornamental or recreational use. They were first popularized among Western European nobles, where having a grassy yard in front of your house was seen as a status symbol. Owning land required lots of money. If you could afford land, then you would use it for farming. So for landowners to use their land recreationally rather than farming was a sign of immense wealth. Additionally, these well-maintained lawns required expensive and labor-intensive hand sheering or scything.
In the modern era, lawns' popularity evolved from ultra-wealthy estates to middle-class front yards. The invention and factory production of the lawnmower in the 19th century made well-kept grass yards exceedingly desirable and accessible to the masses. Millions of families across America proudly display their grass yards by carefully weeding, watering, raking, fertilizing, and mowing these small-scale replicas of the princely lawns that inspired the concept years ago. Our yard's relative health and attractiveness became an indicator of how well we were living. Maintaining a healthy, well-kept lawn helps us persuade others that things are going well or that we will be responsible neighbors. Given this context, it's easy to see why a well-kept lawn is associated with success and stability.
With so many acres covered in farmed grass, ecological repercussions are substantial. These urban landscapes in the United States lack biodiversity. They are heavily manicured with frequent mowing, and they're chemically controlled. According to the EPA, lawns account for over half of all homeowner water use, much of which is wasted. Americans are estimated to use 80 million pounds of fertilizer and insecticides on their lawns yearly. We use 800 million pounds of gasoline to mow our lawns. Gasoline-powered lawn and garden equipment are also a major source of toxic, carcinogenic air pollution, with nearly 26.7 million tons of air pollutants introduced annually. And operating a gas lawn mower for 1 hour produces as much air pollution as driving a car for 100 miles.
There are many benefits to changing the way we manage our yards. However, the benefits of only allowing a lawn to grow with dandelions, clover, and other weeds may be limited. There will be something for pollinators to forage on, but many weeds are non-native and do not provide the best support. For instance, dandelions have low protein pollen, and they are poor sustenance for pollinators and have been shown to suppress other flowers. And some lawns may contain invasive weeds that should be controlled. Critics of No Mow May worry that the movement may unintentionally harm pollinators by giving them only a brief safe haven. That, when suddenly mowed back, can be counterproductive.
Mowing less is one small step to help save pollinators. Here are six solutions to protect and provide more permanent habitats for pollinators.
- Replace lawns, or at least a portion of them, with native plants and trees that will bloom throughout the growing season from spring to fall. Here are some native-plant search tools and guides to help: Audubon, Pollinator Partnership, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Xerces Society.
- Provide natural nesting sites for pollinators. Some bees may use fallen tree branches and logs for nesting. Many butterflies and moths lay eggs and nurture their young on plants and shrubs. And ground-nesting bees may benefit from a tiny patch of bare ground.
- Eliminate herbicide and pesticide use.
- Remember that all pollinator gardens are helpful, no matter the size! Everything, including balcony container gardens, window boxes, patio planters, backyard home gardens, pathways, sidewalks, roadsides, and acres of meadows, can all benefit pollinators!
- Participate in the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge, a program to register one million public and private pollinator gardens and landscapes. Learn how to help pollinators by participating in this campaign and The National Pollinator Garden Network.
- Spread the word. Tell your family, friends, neighbors, and elected officials about pollinator conservation. You can even put up a pollinator garden sign to show your community that your garden supports pollinators!
Lawns are most likely to continue to be the preferred option in American yards for many years to come. However, through continued raised awareness, we can grow support for pollinators. No Mow May may not be perfect, but it does help us to rethink our obsession with lawns.
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