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No Mow May: A way of doing more for pollinators by doing less this spring

In May, many bees are coming out of hibernation and need flowers to feed themselves and their babies. The main purpose of No Mow May is to encourage people to let spring flowers in their lawns bloom before mowing.

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A No Mow May sign in the St. Paul yard of Gretchen Cudak of St. Paul on Thursday, April 28, 2022. By not mowing in May and letting dandelions, clover, creeping Charlie and other flowers bloom, people are creating habitat for pollinators, including bees, and other wildlife.
Scott Takushi / St. Paul Pioneer Press
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ST. PAUL -- On a chilly morning in late April, Amanda Lynch planted a city-issued sign in her family’s front yard.

“No Mow May,” it proclaimed.

It was her dad’s idea to take part in this environmental initiative in West St. Paul, but the city and her father have her full support.

“I like it because I don’t have to mow the yard,” said Lynch, 20, with a laugh. “It’s a good idea, though — to give the lawn the opportunity to start growing and get everything started.”

Pollinator perks

No Mow May’s purpose is actually for pollinators, and it’s a blossoming trend across the U.S. — and around Minnesota. Rochester was one of the first communities to go the No Mow May route, and the city of Mankato recently adopted the movement.

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What’s the purpose of doing less — to let the grass grow shaggy; to let the dandelions grow; to hold off on that spring cleanup of leaves?

“No Mow May is a campaign to raise awareness of the importance of spring flowers for bees,” said Elaine Evans, extension educator at the University of Minnesota. “In May, many bees are coming out of hibernation and need flowers to feed themselves and their babies. The main purpose of No Mow May is to encourage people to let spring flowers in their lawns bloom before mowing.”

The bees needing an assist include the endangered rusty patched bumblebee, which became Minnesota’s state bee in 2019.

“The rusty patched bumblebee used to be common in Minnesota but is now very rare,” Evans says. “It is threatened with extinction, but still can be found in many parts of Minnesota, with many recent sightings in the Twin Cities. By creating a pollinator haven in your yard, you can help the rusty patched bumble bee recover.”

Planting pollinator-friendly flowers is an idea people are familiar with, but it’s probably going to take a lot of signs to spread the message to Americans that they should consider letting their yards grow more wild — to let the creeping Charlie creep, to let the clover flourish.

“It’s all about education,” says Gretchen Cudak, a member of the St Paul Garden Club. “We all need to refocus and regroup about what we think is normal and good — because what we think is normal and good is not normal and good for pollinators. The bees are really suffering.”

A British import

The idea for No Mow May took root across the pond: The annual campaign by Plantlife, a conservation group in England, inspired the city of Appleton, Wis., to pass a resolution to do the same, as well as Lawrence University of Appleton. Both the city and the university are affiliates of the Xerces Society, an Oregon-based environmental organization (named after an extinct butterfly) that organizes programs called Bee City USA and Bee Campus USA.

No Mow May has slowly been spreading, like honey on toast.

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“It just went viral this year,” says Laura Rost, coordinator for Bee City USA and Bee Campus USA.

It’s not just about lawns and it’s not just about May, though.

“We think of No Mow May as one thing you can do; a starting point to helping bees,” Rost says. “The month of May might not be the best month for all areas of the country. But studies show it’s a very important part of the year for many bees. If you mow less or not at all when they are emerging, you tend to see a higher number of species of bees and a higher abundance of bees overall, if there are flowers are in the grass.”

Flowers … in the grass?

Here in Minnesota, that could mean what we often think of as “weeds.”

“Clover, dandelion, purple nettle or violets do provide spring nectar and resources,” Rost says. “Planting native plants and reducing pesticide usage — that’s what bees really need.”

May Day

No Mow May began on Sunday — May Day, a day known for flowers. It’s been such a cold spring, though, that mowing and flowers and bees haven’t been on people’s minds. After all, we were still shoveling snow in April. In Edina, though, the efforts for the city’s first No Mow May were ramping up even as the snow was still falling.

‘It’s such a critical time of the season,” says Grace Hancock, Edina, Minnesota’s sustainability manager.

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The endangered rusty patched bumblebee, Minnesota’s state bee since 2017, feeds from Boneset, a perennial in the aster family that is a pollinator favorite. By letting your lawn and yard go a bit wild — and free of pesticides — starting in No Mow May, you are creating food and habitat for local bees and other pollinators and wildlife.
Courtesy of Heather Holm via St. Paul Pioneer Press

The official program is limited to homes with individual yards this year, either owner-occupied or owner-approved. Registration is required, so the city can track participation and separate No Mow May efforts from nuisance properties — typically, the city won’t intervene unless the grass grows longer than 10 inches, but registered properties are allowed to go past that in May. It’s difficult to imagine grass growing longer than 10 inches this May, but homeowners will have until June 15 to get their lawns back in compliance if needed.

And in June?

It’s OK to keep the grass shaggy (choose a higher setting for your lawn mower — you don’t want to shave it like a military recruit’s head), and to put away the “weed’ killer.

“Think about when you go to a park, and you see flowers and bees and butterflies,” Hancock says. ‘But we expect to see lawns and not much else in someone’s yard — no dandelions, no clover. But that’s not how nature shows up in its natural form — and getting back to nature is very beneficial, even in our short season.”

This is why yard signs are crucial to No Mow May — as of Friday, 750 properties had signed up in Edina to participate and spread the word.

“Signs are part of the education and celebration piece, and we hope they’ll lead to across-the-fence conversations,” Hancock says. “A changing climate can be daunting — what can we do? This is something we can do; it really does start at home.”

Conversation starters

It doesn’t take a city for someone to participate. After reading about No Mow May in the New York Times, Cudak printed off a sign on the Xerces Society’s website and, after laminating it, has it displayed prominently in her front yard on Summit Avenue. She also printed out and laminated more of the signs and handed them out to members of the St. Paul Garden Club as well as friends at her book club.

It’s been a good conversation starter.

“I was explaining No Mow May to someone who lives in an area with only perfectly green lawns,” Cudak says. “I told her that the idea is to let the dandelions, clover and creeping Charlie flower and grow so the bees could have their first food. She said, ‘But those are weeds.’ This is why it takes a mindset change; we have to relook at why we do things.”

The garden club, Cudak says, is working on a tour of “bee lawns” (stay tuned).

Just why are pollinators so important, anyway?

“Pollinators directly impact our food supply, with about one out of every three bites of food you eat depending on pollinators,” Evans says. “Not only that, but pollinator-dependent foods tend to be our most nutrient-dense foods, like fruits and nuts. Looking beyond our food supply, about 80 percent of plants depend on pollinators for their survival and these plants feed countless creatures, filter water and build soils. Pollinators are an essential part of our ecosystem.”

In West St. Paul, people are picking up signs at City Hall for the Dakota County community’s second year of No Mow May. City officials hope participation keeps growing, just like the grass, every year.

“Taking part will help a lot of wildlife — more than we even know,” says Mayor Dave Napier.

Tips for No Mow May — and beyond:

Find resources for No Mow May and print out a yard sign at Beecityusa.org/no-mow-may.

Elaine Evans, extension educator at the University of Minnesota, recommends four actions that anyone can take to help pollinators:

  • Plant flowers: Whether it is a pot, a patch, or a prairie, every bit helps. Keep those flowers free of pesticides and look for plants that are native to your area. (Consider adding violets and pussy toes. For blooms after May, add self-heal, ground plum, lanceleaf tickweed or calico American aster. If you want to do even more for pollinators in May, plant native spring blooming flowers, trees, and shrubs, like pussy willows, serviceberries, and bluebells.)
  • Create homes: You can create safe spaces for pollinators by leaving some messy corners in your yard with leaves, logs, and standing stems. A diversity of native plants can be homes for caterpillars.
  • Take climate action: Plant trees and native grasses with deep roots. Switch to clean energy sources. Support sustainable farming. Our future food supply depends on pollinators and they depend on a stable climate.
  • Collect data: By taking photos of pollinators and sharing them on the app iNaturalist, you can help scientists track and protect them.

Get more local info and resources at the University of Minnesota’s Bee Lab at Beelab.umn.edu and the Minnesota Bumble Bee Atlas.

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