No Mow May movement stems from push to save the bees
On Long Pond in Ledyard, at the end of a road of the same name, Betsy and Bob Graham let the grass on several acres of their expansive property grow largely unchecked.
It's been like that for a decade now, with meadows where the horse paddocks used to be and new plants popping up every year on a spit of land curving into the pond.
"There was some disagreement," Bob said of the decision 10 years ago to go wild. "Betsy wanted everything mowed and I said, 'No, no, we should let it grow.'"
They didn't know at the time that "no mow" would become a rallying cry in the movement to save the bees, or that it would get its own month. This May, the clamor is becoming louder as awareness grows about the effect of declining populations of pollinators — a category that also includes butterflies, birds and bats — on the human food supply.
A 2017 study from the national nonprofit organization Center for Biological Diversity found that nearly half of native bee species are declining and nearly a quarter of those are at risk of extinction.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, some scientists estimate pollinators are responsible for one out of every three bites of food humans eat. Without them, experts say, many fruits and nuts — including apples, blueberries, cashews, grapefruit, mangoes, tomatoes and pumpkins — wouldn't exist. Losing those foods would have massive social and economic implications as healthy options decrease and the prices of those that remain go up.
But those weren't the facts, figures and theories that guided the Grahams at first. It was more of a natural progression.
"You realize you're disturbing a lot of wildlife as you start mowing through," Bob said. Now, they mow the meadows once a year, during the fall, while maintaining a tidier schedule around the house. There, they mow about once a month starting in June, when the spring wildflowers are gone.
The argument for the No Mow May approach goes like this: Letting the grass grow for a month in the spring allows flowering plants to proliferate, so the struggling bee population can find the nectar and pollen it needs to survive.
Proponents also advocate for planting native flowers that attract more native bee species because they have co-evolved over thousands of years.
The phenomenon, with its roots in England, spread to North America and took hold in the United States' Midwest. In those areas, the month of May finds queen bees coming out of hibernation at their hungriest while sources of nourishment are at their most scarce.
For Betsy, a part-time veterinarian, and Bob, a retired emergency room physician, it just seemed right to take a step back from traditional suburban lawn maintenance on the property that served as a summer camp for boys before the couple purchased it 42 years ago.
"We don't use any fertilizers," Betsy said. "It doesn't have to be a golf course. And it's not meant to be."
New species of native plants keep surprising them, like the orange milkweed plant that showed up one year as a gathering spot for caterpillars and butterflies. On Saturday, Betsy noticed another type of milkweed near the pond.
"That's brand new," she said. "That's never been there before."
Milkweed is significant as the only host plant used by monarch butterflies. It's where butterflies lay eggs, which hatch into caterpillars that go on to eat the leaves.
On a busy half-acre overlooking Noank's West Cove, Robin Thomas stood amid the wildflowers in the yard she won't be mowing until June. She pointed to garden beds, where vegetables used to grow, that are being converted to pollinator gardens to lure bees instead of deer. In front of an ornamental wrought-iron gate fashioned by her husband, Clint Wright, disorderly rows of dandelions stood sentry.
Thomas said she'd begin weekly mowing when the buttercups disappear in a few weeks but will work around any clusters of native plants that remain or sprout up. It's a compromise to retain the pollinator-friendly plants while not making the property too untidy for neighbors or too inviting for the infamous arachnids that plague the high grass and cause the disease that got its name in nearby Lyme.
"I don't want ticks or anything like that," she said.
Karl Guillard, a professor of agronomy at the University of Connecticut who specializes in lawn management, also vouched for the compromise approach.
When asked about how to make a lawn pollinator-friendly without being welcoming to ticks, he suggested finding plants that provide the most nectar and pollen for pollinators and then planting them in selected areas of the yard.
"Then this will maintain a nice-looking lawn for those who desire that and also provide the benefits of the flowers in the selected spots for the pollinators," he said. "Good compromise where everyone wins."
He said not mowing the lawn and letting the grass go to flower leaves the grass less dense when it is eventually mowed. That results in brown and yellow spots where the ground was shaded by the tall plants and encourages openings for undesirable weeds like crabgrass.
Dawn Pettinelli, an associate extension educator at the University of Connecticut in the soil nutrient analysis laboratory as well as an avid gardener, said a factor in the prevalence of ticks is whether the lawn is in the sun or shade.
"Realistically, the ticks need moisture/humidity to survive," she said in an email. "So if you have a large lawn in full sun, even if the grass gets a little long and some flowering plants bloom, there would not be a really great chance that there would be many ticks unless we have a particularly rainy month (which we haven't had so far)."
She cited studies that found ticks typically stay within 9 feet or so of forested areas surrounding yards. So one option would be to mow the edge of the property and leave the center of the lawn to grow so that flowering plants can bloom, she said.
Marjorie Meekhoff, founder and president of the nonprofit Pollinator Pathway East Lyme, said replacing some common invasive plants with native varieties also can help make an environment that's not so conducive to ticks. She cited Japanese barberry, an ornamental shrub popular for its reddish-purple leaves, as a prominent example of a non-native plant that harbors mice on which ticks are known to feed.
"So if you have any Japanese barberry in the yard, mice like to live under the thorny branches in the winter to stay warm and in the summer to stay cool," she said.
Meekhoff, like Pettinelli, advocated for mowing a buffer around a property for those who are hesitant to go all in. The tidy edge frames the wilder center in a way that can make the effect look more intentional, according to proponents.
Rethinking the lawn
Steve Grover, who lives in Stonington on just under a half-acre near the Velvet Mill and Town Hall, said he started thinking about his mowing habits when he realized his apple and pear trees were dropping fruit prematurely, which he attributed to a lack of pollination.
He decided to shrink his lawn down considerably, converting much of it to gardens and focusing on native plants.
"The science is really clear on the pollinator issue and the science is really clear on what you need to have a good lawn," he said. "And it's not saturated with chemicals and turned into a sterile wasteland. It doesn't work over time."
Grover was hopeful that raising awareness about the issue would lead people to modify their behavior — at least somewhat.
"I see this as a great opportunity for people to think globally and act locally," he said. "How much more local can you get than your own yard? And it can make a difference."
A 2020 study by two Lawrence University professors in Wisconsin found increases in the number and type of bees buzzing through 435 yards registered as part of Appleton's No Mow May initiative that year, compared to frequently mowed lawns. There were five times as many bees and three times as many species, according to the study.
Meekhoff, whose Pollinator Pathway East Lyme group was established last year to promote pollinator-friendly habitats and education, acknowledged No Mow May isn't going to bring back bees from the brink of extinction. But she described it as the start of an important conversation.
"We're in crisis right now and we need to rethink the lawn," she said.
Meekhoff herself maintains a one-acre yard she describes as a "mini park." It's a series of native flower beds connected by pathways with a small mowed section where her grandchildren can play.
She said people need to acknowledge the implications of keeping a perfect lawn, which puts a drain on available water sources and creates pollution from fertilizer. That means planting for the environment and not just for what society has deemed attractive.
"Having violets in your yard is not taboo," she said of the native groundcover. "It's really quite pretty."
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