Pollinating insects are in crisis. Climate change, disease, and pesticide use have contributed to conditions around the world that threaten over 40% of invertebrate pollinator species — bees, moths, and butterflies — with extinction. This threat places almost 90% of flowering plants needing pollination at risk, as well as all of the wildlife who depend on them as a food source.

We are bludgeoned daily with news like this and it can feel like we are utterly helpless in the face of such crises. However, this is one ecological disaster for which we can individually have a positive impact. By participating in movements like No Mow May, we can help support pollinators at a crucial time. Here’s how:

The Problem:

Picture taken from a dramatic, low angle of a man wearing a red hat pushing a lawn mower over short, green grassLawns cover 40 million acres — at least 2% of land in the United States— making grass the single largest crop we grow. In addition to being ecologically useless, lawns are mowed, raked, fertilized, weeded, chemically treated, and abundantly watered, which wastes precious resources and introduces harmful pollutants to the environment. At the same time, lawns provide little benefit to wildlife in general, and lack floral resources and nesting sites for bees and butterflies. 

Because of our nation’s obsession with perfectly manicured lawns, it is estimated that 25% of bumblebees in North America face extinction. The ramifications of losing even a fraction of those species would be devastating.

The Solution: No Mow May

In 2015, President Barack Obama issued a memorandum calling for the establishment of a National Pollinator Health Strategy. Under the strategy, U.S. federal agencies are directed to take action to help pollinator populations recover through research, public education, and by partnering with the public sector. The goal is to reduce honey bee and butterfly losses by reducing insecticide use and by increasing environments and resources available to these critical species. 

A Monarch butterfly drinks from a white echinacea flowerThe start of the growing season is the critical time for us to act because it is when hungry, newly-emerged native pollinators start seeking nourishment. Floral resources may be hard for them to find, though, especially in urban and suburban landscapes. By allowing your lawn to “go natural” during the critical month of May, bees, moths, butterflies, and all other pollinators can safely exit their winter ground homes and find nectar nourishment. Clover — which is also a great nitrogen source for spring lawns — dandelions, native violets, and other wildflowers bloom and go to seed during this time, and are critical resources.

No Mow May was developed and popularized as a solution by Plantlife, an organization based in the United Kingdom. The movement started gaining traction in the United States in 2020, and shows promise for positively impacting our pollinator populations. 

Proof It Works:

The studies conducted since 2015 (when President Obama issued his memorandum) have produced reassuring data showing that reducing the frequency of mowing benefits bees, butterflies, grasshoppers, and many other insects. In central Kentucky, 26 species of bees were recorded visiting dandelion and white clover in urban and suburban lawns. In Massachusetts, researchers found 93 species of bees visiting lawn flowers, with the greatest diversity and abundance on lawns mowed every two or three weeks. 

a honeybee is perched on a white clover blossom amid green grassAs an added bonus, one study found that highly manicured lawns disproportionately favor the abundance of “pest” species, so mowing less would help to reduce some unwanted insect populations.

As the first U.S. community to overwhelmingly adopt No Mow May, Appleton, Wisconsin, found that participating lawns had five times as many bees and three times as many bee species as lawns that were more frequently mowed. While this may seem nightmarish for those with a healthy fear of stinging insects, it’s an important beneficial ecological development.

How to Participate:

Participating is simple: Don’t mow your lawn. Or, if that isn’t a feasible option, try to reduce the frequency to once every two to three weeks. There aren’t any hard and fast rules, but here are some helpful guidelines:

  • Just allowing your lawn to flourish is helpful, but your typical weeds aren’t the best for bees. (While better than nothing, Dandelions have pollen that is low in protein, and can suppress the growth of other beneficial blooms.) You can go above and beyond by creating a pollinator-friendly lawn that includes white clover, creeping thyme, selfheal (Prunella vulgaris), and native violets.a field of wildflowers, with purple, white, yellow, orange, pink, and blue blooms
  • If not mowing your whole yard isn’t feasible, you could allocate a specific area to repurpose as a wildflower garden. Any addition of native flowers will create a little oasis for our pollinating species.
  • If you belong to an HOA (Home Owners Association) or are worried about city ordinances regarding mowing requirements, reach out to leadership about participating in No Mow May. 
  • Join an already existing movement! Sustainable Saratoga has joined the effort and offers lawn signage that property owners can put on their un-mowed lawns as an explanation (which also helps spread awareness, so it’s a win-win!) For more information, you can email pollinators@sustainablesaratoga.org.

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