JANESVILLE

If you notice a neighbor’s lawn starting to look a bit shaggy over the next couple of weeks, it might not be a case of simple laziness.

It could be they’re letting the grass in their yard grow to boost bees as part of “No-Mow May.”

No-Mow May is a backyard environmental movement that has grown nationwide over the last half-decade. It is aimed at bolstering spring and early-summer forage for bees, including common residential spring yard blooms such as clover and dandelions that otherwise would get cut down by regular mowing.

Bees and other pollinators are attracted to such blooms because they appear earlier in the year than most perennial flowers tend to bloom. Bees need pollen and plant nectar to survive, but blooming plants are in shorter supply in the early to midspring.

Population estimates of bees and other pollinators have been in significant decline throughout North America over the past few decades—in part because of the increased use of pesticides that kill insects and herbicides used to kill off weeds before they ever bloom.

Some communities are now letting residents keep grass either unmowed or minimally mowed in the month of May as a way to help bees and other pollinators with a more robust spring habitat with greater and more varied food sources.

In 2020, Appleton became the first Wisconsin city to foster No-Mow May.

In Dane County, elected officials in communities including Verona, Sun Prairie and Cross Plains voted to suspend lawn-mowing rules and lawn length regulations through May, a move that allows people to keep their grass longer for the whole month to help give pollinators a leg up.

A few of these places offer No-Mow May yard signs to help people explain to their neighbors why they’re keeping their grass a little longer.

In Rock County’s biggest communities, Janesville and Beloit, love of pollinators is surely in bloom, but the two cities have not sanctioned No-Mow May.

Maggie Darr, the city of Janesville’s operations director, said she has had a handful of residents in the last two years ask about the city’s stance on No-Mow May.

The city does allow residents to register and keep backyard beehives, but Darr said she is not aware of any major local buzz to foster No-Mow May in Janesville.

She said the city has not waived or altered its longstanding yard and property maintenance rules to foster No-Mow May. The city’s ad hoc sustainability committee has broached the topic of No-Mow May over the last two years, but Darr said the city has been hesitant to change its enforcement rules on a temporary basis.

While Darr said there is nothing illegal about having a shaggy lawn during the month of May, she said the city will not suspend its lawn maintenance ordinance in the coming months. The city’s rule requires residents keep their grass less than 12 inches long and remove tall, noxious weeds from properties.

That ordinance, like many other local property maintenance ordinances in Janesville, is “compliance-based,” which means residents whose grass gets too long under city rules could face ordinance violations and fines if neighbors or others report the violations to the city.

Darr said the city’s own park spaces include miles of wooded greenbelts that the city doesn’t mow.

She said in addition to the greenbelt system slowing rain runoff and supporting larger wildlife such as deer and foxes, the spaces create a naturally grassy, wild ecosystem with flowers and tree buds that support a variety of bees, birds, and other animals and insects that pollinate.

The city of Beloit also has rules requiring residents to mow their grass regularly to keep rodents and other nuisance animals from being attracted to unkempt yards with long weeds, according to the ordinance.

Carrie Sypniewski, a Janesville resident who is also a member of the Rock County Beekeepers Association, estimates there are more than 250 different pollinator insects and birds in southern Wisconsin that could inhabit the yards of residents in Janesville.

Yet Sypniewski said No-Mow May hasn’t taken off in Rock County, in part because of continued property maintenance mandates but also because of neighbor-to-neighbor peer pressure.

“The biggest problem people have buying into No-Mow May is the social pressure they might get from their neighbors to cut their grass or use weed killer. A lot of people want that pretty, green, golf-course lawn, and they want their neighbors’ lawn to match that,” Sypniewski said.

“A short, manicured lawn looks nice and uniform, but unfortunately, the insects can suffer. And because everything is linked in the food chain, then you can start to see birds decline, too.”

While city ordinances in Rock County might preclude people from turning their yard into a field of waist-high tall grass, Sypniewski said people can participate in No-Mow May without allowing their lawn to reach heights that can spark city property maintenance violations.

“Just set your lawn mower blade higher than usual,” she said, explaining that lawns that are allowed to grow five or six inches long will support dandelions—probably the most important bloom in early spring for pollinators such as bees.

Sypniewski said people who have neighbors (or spouses) who can’t tolerate shaggy grass and dandelions gone to seed can consider planting trees that start to flower in midspring, such as apple trees, or evergreen or basswood trees, both which produce nectar-like saps that bees and other pollinators use for food and hive health.

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