Beekeeping Basics

Bees and Lawns

- June 1, 2022 - Dewey Caron - (excerpt)

Homeowners positively impact bees and pollinating insects. We are well aware that our urban bees need more and better food. But most homeowner lawns are largely deserts as they cultivate the “ideal” lush, green carpet meant to draw the admiration of neighbors. The ideal lawn is NOT the bee ideal.

An informative Xerces Society 2018 release (https://www.xerces.org/blog/bee-friendlier-with-your-lawncare) says about our addiction to a lawn:

 

A lush, green, weed-free lawn is as American as apple pie. It tells the whole neighborhood that you are a competent, hard-working, contributing member of society. Dandelions and an overgrown lawn are a sign of neglect, incompetence, and laziness — or so our culture would have you believe.

 

Homeowners go to great lengths to curate the ideal aesthetic lawn. Weekly mowing. Weekly or twice-weekly watering. One to four herbicide applications to kill undesirable weeds. Spreading fertilizer a few times per year to ensure the pristine green color. We need to stop and seriously consider the ecological and environmental consequences of the requirement for and expectation of lawns. For our bees, beekeepers should cultivate the bee lawn as an example for our neighbors.

Turf lawns account for roughly 40 million acres, nearly 2 percent of land cover in the U.S. Lawn owners mow, water, rake, use pesticides and fertilize to maintain an aesthetically pleasing lawn. To mow their lawn, many use a small gas-powered engine. According to a 2001 study, operating a gas-powered lawn mower for one hour produces as much air pollution as a 100-mile car trip. In the fall, the mower might be replaced by a gas-powered leaf blower. In a 2011 test by automotive experts at Edmunds, a consumer-grade leaf blower was shown to emit more pollutants than a 6,200-pound 2011 Ford F-150.

Homeowners need only make small changes in their lawn-management practices to benefit the bees. Changing how often they mow, raising their mower height setting, and reducing or changing their selection of insecticides and herbicides to limit insect pollinator exposure to chemicals are relatively easy fixes.

 

Lawn history

The human love affair with lawns dates to the 1700s. English nobles and aristocrats began the practice of establishing and maintaining conspicuous expanses of natural green carpet. They were the only ones who could afford to keep private land unproductive. Modern American lawns owe their tradition to the English, right down to the fact that our lawns are made from the same (invasive) European grasses. Suburbs require maintaining a lush green lawn.

 

Water water water

Lawns use water, lots of it. One estimate pegs lawn watering as consuming between 50 and 75 percent of the total water use of suburban households. Lawns are the single largest irrigation use; lawns use more water than corn, wheat, and fruit orchards combined. Excessive watering, along with over-fertilization of lawns, results in movement of nitrogen through soil or surface water runoff, ending up in local watersheds and contributing to algal bloom.

Reducing mowing frequency helps a lawn become more resilient to drought. Mowing grass stimulates growth, requiring the lawn to take up more nutrients and water to survive. Letting the lawn grow a bit longer will increase the amount of water the leaves can hold. Water retention can promote more diversity in the lawn than merely a grass monoculture.

 

Mow less and smarter

A USDA study investigated how different lawn-mowing frequencies might influence bee abundance and diversity. They mowed herbicide-free suburban lawns on three different schedules (every week, every other week, and once every three weeks). The study results found bee abundance increased when lawns were mowed every other week. Mowing every three weeks resulted in more than double the number of flowers available in lawns. In the study, done in Springfield, Massachusetts, the flowers that became more abundant were mainly clovers and dandelions: https://www.nrs.fs.fed.us/pubs/55816

In addition to reducing how frequently a lawn is mowed it is possible to reduce the amount of lawn that needs mowing. In place of that lawn, consider planting a rain garden, pollinator garden, or wildflower meadow — or replacing your non-native turf grass lawn with native grass alternatives. Or better yet, develop a bee lawn.

 

Create a bee lawn

At least 28 states have enacted pollinator health laws in recent years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Legislation generally addresses habitat protection, research, pesticides, beekeeping and public awareness. An innovative program is one recently enacted in Minnesota (https://beeinformed.org/2022/02/23/bee-lawns-conserve-pollinators-and-natural-resources-in-your-own-home-lawn/). In 2020, the state legislature developed a program to reimburse residents up to $350 to plant “bee lawns” utilizing a mix of traditional lawn grass and low-growing flowers. “A lot of people are watching this,” said Marla Spivak, the University of Minnesota entomologist. The initial state appropriation was $900,000 for this innovative program.

Land managers differ in the way they perceive weeds compared to bees and their keepers. Commercial lawn care companies and homeowners generally consider anything besides grass as a weed. Beekeepers think in terms of biodiversity. We seek more flowers because that potentially means more food resources for our bees. Weedy lawns provide the flowers that produce the nectar and pollen smorgasbord. And not just lawns but grass areas alongside roadways, ground cover in parks, steep slopes, and rights of way or easements.

A bee lawn features a mixture of grass varieties and low-growing perennials that can be used and treated much like a regular lawn. These perennials offer high-quality nutrition to pollinators. But bee lawns, in addition to providing bees and other pollinators with nectar and pollen, can also enhance the lawn by promoting deeper roots, increased soil health, and reduced need for extensive inputs and use of potentially harmful fertilizer and pesticide chemicals. They also require less watering

 

Bee lawns benefit pollinators

One means to benefit pollinators is to modify the grass selection. For example, fine fescues (Festuca sp.) have thinner blades that give flowers the best chance to establish. Fescues are longer-rooted and slower-growing than, for example, Kentucky bluegrass, and need less maintenance throughout the year. They give the flower weeds more of an opportunity.

In the southeastern U.S., centipede grass, developed by USDA and University of Georgia scientists, has demonstrated better heat tolerance and lower maintenance. It is especially useful on sandy, acidic soils. As a real plus it attracts honey bees, bumble bees, and other bee pollinators. Work is needed for developing other alternatives for other growing regions.

The best potential for a bee lawn is to increase diversity with flowers that can tolerate being mowed when mowing height is elevated to 3 inches. We might select different flower types that cater to ….