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'No Mow May' can be successful, but maybe not in the ways you think

A bees stops a flower on an apple tree.
Katie Thoresen
A bees stops a flower on an apple tree.

The buzzing of bees in early spring as they fly from flower to flower is a comforting sound to those concerned about pollinator populations, especially those like Hannah Gaines Day that have spent their professional career studying them.

She’s a research scientist at the Entomology Department at UW Madison.

“Pollinators need food throughout their whole flying season,” said Gaines Day. “In the earlier spring season, when they first emerge from hibernation, there aren't a lot of resources available.”

Pollinators populations have been declining over the years, largely due to habitat destruction.

Creating more habitat during a critical time of year is the main idea behind No Mow May, a movement first started in the UK but has been gaining traction in North America.

The idea is if people let their lawns grow throughout the month of May there will be more early spring blooms for the pollinators.

“Anytime that you can provide flowers, you're providing resources for bees,” said Gaines Day. “We know from some of our own data that we've collected with the City of Sun Prairie, and other data around the state, that when you have unmowed areas with flowers, you definitely have more bees, like a higher abundance of bees than in areas where you've mowed where there are no flowers.”

A lot more buzzing

This is the third year the Forest County Potawatomi Community has participated in No Mow May for the roughly 20 to 30 acres it typically mows on the government campus in Crandon.

“It was about two weeks ago I looked across and it was all just yellow dandelions. Then there was just this buzz through the whole lawn and yard of bees,” said Leah Bell, an environmental educator for the Tribe. “Very different types of bees, wasp beetles, some moths, maybe a couple butterflies, it's a little early for them yet, but you could see kind of like the flowers moving because there were so many pollinators taking advantage of that resource.”

Bell says they have two motivating factors in participating in No Mow May.

One is about helping pollinators and the environment.

“Maybe we don't want to see more dandelions, but it's not always about what we want to see because those bees or beetles or hummingbirds, who's ever visiting that food source, is also going out and pollinating maybe our fruits and vegetable plants that we eventually are going to consume later on,” said Bell “It's just taking care of our environment and, thankfully, this is a very passive way to do it.”

The other part is No Mow May can be a great awareness campaign.

Bringing awareness

“It's highly visible, easy to participate in, it catches people's attention,” said Ben Koski. He’s the Natural Resources Manager for the Forest County Potawatomi Community.

Koski says people see the grass growing tall and the signs that read “No Mow May” and they start asking questions. He says it can raise people’s awareness of the decline in pollinators and maybe also change their mindset of what a lawn needs to look like.

“That's the ultimate goal is to just keep people asking those questions. ‘What are they doing? Okay, now that I'm doing it, what else can I do? How else can I help?’ Just taking initiative as a community to better promote the natural world,” said Koski.

Gaines Day agrees awareness has been one of the most successful aspects of No Mow May.

More people are learning about the need for pollinator habitat to benefit declining species.

But in terms of actually helping pollinators in your backyard, there are other steps you can be taking that would be more beneficial.

Other benefits

If you have a perfectly manicured lawn without a weed in sight, it doesn’t matter how long you let the grass grow. If there are no flowers, it’s not going to help pollinators.

At the same time, not mowing or even mowing less frequently, can help you save on gas and reduce emissions.

“There are other benefits of No Mow May besides providing resources for pollinators. I think that's something that people could also think about as well,” said Gaines Day.

Planting more flowers

Gaines Day says if you really want to help pollinators, planting flowers will give you a bigger bang for your buck.

She recommends looking for a variety of native plants that will bloom at different times throughout the growing season.

“In the early spring, you'll see Queen bumblebees often or you'll see what are called mining bees. Those are earlier bees in Wisconsin. Throughout the season, later in the summer, you'll have maybe some of the beautiful green shiny bees coming out or some of the sweat bees. You want to make sure that you're planning a garden to have something flowering at any given time during the year,” said Gaines Day.

Koski says they make that effort around buildings on the Forest County Potawatomi Campus, requesting buildings be landscaped with native plants over ones that may be more common for landscapes.

Bell says they’ll also work with Tribal members in the community for landscaping at their homes.

“We're going to suggest using native vegetation or something that does flower during the right times of year, so offering those other resources is something that we do,” said Bell.

Whether you choose to plant flowers, stop mowing for the month of May, or maybe just mow a little less than you do now, Gaines Day, Bell and Koski all hope No Mow May can motivate people to keep the pollinators in mind even after the month comes to an end.

“It's a great way to get people to start to think outside of the box. We're helping our pollinators. These things are living in and around us every day. We live with them every day,” said Koski. “If we can think more about them on a daily basis, doing those small things to help Mother Earth, to help the creatures here, it helps the ecosystem overall.”

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Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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