No Mow May is an initiative that was first popularized by Plantlife, a UK-based conservation charity, and it is now widely known about and participated in throughout North America. The goal of No Mow May is simple: to discourage people from mowing lawns in May, when spontaneous perennial flowers occurring in lawns provide important food and habitat for pollinators. Variations on this concept, such as the ‘Dandelion Challenge’ in Quebec, may seem different, but encourage the same core principle of reduced spring mowing.
However, with growing popularity, there has been uncertainty around No Mow May’s effectiveness to support pollinators, as well as concern that No Mow May could be drawing attention away from more beneficial and intentional actions, such as actively planting native plants for pollinators. In this article, we provide Bee City Canada’s perspective on No Mow May, including its benefits, where it falls short, and our recommendations about how to support pollinators and ecosystems through reduced mowing, thoughtful management, and intentionally introducing native plants.
Benefits of No Mow May
No Mow May has been an incredible tool for promoting the lack of ecological value associated with the conventional manicured turf lawn, which has been encouraged as a social norm for far too long. Conventional lawns are close to dead zones for pollinators, providing little to no food and nesting opportunities. No Mow May has not only educated people about this fact, but it has also provided people with a narrative that has empowered them to break the social norm of the conventional lawn, and experiment with inviting nature back into their yards, however imperfect the approach may be. Beyond individuals, No Mow May has had systemic benefits, encouraging many municipalities to endorse the concept of reduced mowing, at least during May. Bit by bit, the narrative of No Mow May has encouraged individuals and governments to shift away from the conventional lawn as the way to manage a yard, and to welcome management approaches that are more ecologically beneficial.
At Bee City Canada, we see No Mow May as a step in the right direction, and not a destination. The concept can act as a gateway to learning about the actions that can be taken to support pollinators and ecosystems.
Of course, by not constantly mowing a lawn, it is more likely that some spontaneously occurring flowers will survive and have the opportunity to bloom and provide food for pollinators. This, of course, is something – more than what is offered by a manicured lawn. But many of the flowers that spontaneously appear are non-native in Canada, such as dandelions, crocuses, and white clover. In the UK, where No Mow May originated, dandelions and white clover are native and pollinators have had the opportunity to co-evolve with them, but in North America, that is not the case. These plants do still provide pollen and nectar, which is beneficial, but they are not ideal food sources for native pollinators in North America; for example, dandelion pollen can help to supplement bees’ diets, but on its own, it is a relatively poor protein source.
Despite the benefits of No Mow May to pollinators having limitations in terms of food and shelter, No Mow May does have some other important benefits. For example, by simply encouraging people to leave mowers in the shed, No Mow May is reducing greenhouse gas emissions associated with mowing – a step toward climate change mitigation. This benefit can be especially powerful when mowing is reduced at a large scale, such as in the case of municipal land management. By encouraging a more natural aesthetic, No Mow May also reduces the motivation for some people to use chemicals, such as pesticides and herbicides, and excessive amounts of water for yard maintenance.
Where No Mow May falls short
As we began to discuss, spontaneously occurring plants are often non-native and not ideal food sources for bees and other pollinators. In some cases, the approach of allowing spontaneously occurring plants to grow could even contribute to the spread of invasive species, which is something that should be avoided. The more intentional approach of actively planting native plants in your yard and nurturing a diverse plant community will always be the best choice if your goal is to support pollinators, and we will explore this more in the section that follows.
Another area where No Mow May falls short is the time window. May is indeed a critical time for pollinators in need of food sources, but so is March and April, when some pollinators emerge from hibernation, and later from August to October, when many pollinators are reproducing and preparing for hibernation. Though No Mow May is a catchy title that helps to spread the word, limiting action to such a brief window is not ideal if your goal is to support pollinators.
Perhaps most importantly, while No Mow May brings people into the conversation, it may leave some people with a limited understanding of how to most effectively support pollinators and ecosystems in their yard. While the initiative was clearly designed to get people in the door, and not across the finish line, there is some risk that No Mow May could be giving some people the feeling that they are taking a significant step to support pollinators, when more realistically they are taking a first step. In the section that follows, we will provide more nuanced recommendations to support pollinators and ecosystems.
Once you have opened your mind to the possibilities of what a yard beyond manicured turf can look like, there is no reason to limit yourself to reducing mowing during May. We encourage the active management of yards for pollinators throughout the growing season, from early spring to fall. The best way to do this is by actively planting and managing native plant pollinator gardens. You may wish to start small and plant a few native plants in your yard. Perhaps you would like to plant a larger native plant garden along the sides of your backyard while keeping some turfgrass for recreation. Maybe you would even like to go as far as converting the entire yard into a native plant pollinator garden, as many of us at Bee City Canada have done! Regardless of how much space you would like to devote to gardening for pollinators, here is how we recommend that you go about creating these spaces:
- Prioritize plants that are native to your region. Native plants have evolved with native pollinators to provide valuable pollen and nectar resources, and to thrive in your climate without the need for excessive watering and chemical inputs. Native plants will support the wonderful diversity of native pollinators that are indigenous to your area. Check out Pollinator Partnership Canada’s Ecoregional Planting Guides and Find Your Roots plant selection tool to learn which plants to plant where you live.
- Incorporate a range of plants that provide food for pollinators from spring to fall. Early spring and late fall can be difficult times for pollinators to find blooming plants, despite being critical periods in many pollinators’ lifecycles. For example, most bumble bee species emerge from hibernation in early spring and produce new queens in late fall, and therefore these are critical times in their lifecycle where they need floral resources in order to initiate colonies (spring) and produce reproductive bees (late summer and fall) that will initiate colonies the next year.
- Include pollinator host plants. Many pollinators have evolved specialized relationships with particular plant species, and depend on them to lay their eggs. A well known example of this is the reliance of monarch butterfly larvae on milkweed. But many other native flowers, trees, and grasses provide larval food for hundreds of other types of butterflies, like the tiger swallowtails.
- Leave bare soil patches, stems, and dead stalks as nesting space. While managed honeybees live in human-made hives, the vast majority of bee species (>90%) nest underground, in plant stems, in old beetle burrows in wood, and in other natural cavities. Be inspired by nature to include some of these elements in your garden.
- Avoid insecticides. Some insecticides can harm pollinators when they come into contact with them. Always read pesticide labels, follow pesticide restrictions, and look for warnings that they may be harmful to bees.
No Mow May: Some final thoughts
No Mow May has had a profound positive impact across Canada, primarily by opening up the hearts and minds of people to the idea that yards can be havens for nature. Reduced mowing, when done right (check out the Canadian Wildlife Federation’s Rethinking Mowing document for some tips!), has many benefits, including increased food availability for pollinators. But it is important to view reduced mowing as a first step, not a major leap, when it comes to supporting pollinators. To best support pollinators, we highly recommend actively planting and managing native plant pollinator gardens; by doing this, you can be certain that you are providing critical food and shelter for local pollinators.