There seems to be a lot of talk these days about “No-Mow May”, where homeowners are encouraged not to mow their lawns during the month of May on the pretense that this will provide a great benefit to wildlife like bees and butterflies. In my opinion, the No-Mow May movement tends to cover up a much deeper and destructive problem for wildlife species.

While the No-Mow May idea seems logical on its surface, the reality is that birds, bees and butterflies need a lot more than one month out of the year to ensure their survival. Bees and other pollinators are already starting into their summer life cycles in April, and those life cycles continue long past May and, for many species, into late fall of the year.

In fact, in May, the summer season of insects, pollinators and nesting birds is just getting underway—a large portion of the action takes place from late May to September. Many moths and butterflies, for example, need a wide variety of flowers in bloom and trees in full leaf in order to feed and lay their eggs—events that largely happen after the month of May. In addition, many of these insects go through two or three reproduction cycles over the duration of the summer; they need good habitat throughout the season.

But note that pollen- and nectar-feeding insects need blooming flower species in wide diversity for both reproduction and feeding, and this means a variety of native plants that these insects evolved with.

All the members of a local ecosystem—plants, trees, insects and animals—evolved together to create an interconnected and dependent “society,” and nonnative plants are often not welcome. Not mowing your lawn in May might allow a few dandelions and white clover (both nonnative species) to flower, but dandelions and clover are not actually a high-value source of nectar, and you are just as likely to see nonnatives like crabgrass and ground ivy (creeping Charlie) taking off.

Contrary to what a recent letter writer to The Gazette seemed to imply, native plants, or “wildflowers,” will not erupt magically from the ground just because you don’t mow for a month.

For the most part, native plant species have been eradicated both by human settlement and agriculture and by the creation of cities and the urban sprawl that helped foster a “lawn culture” to fill in the spaces between buildings and streets.

Simply not mowing a piece of ground for a month in an established subdivision is not going to result in a prairie habitat. With the typical suburban lawn, what you unavoidably end up with, whether you mow in May or not, is what we call a “monoculture”—that is, a habitat of primarily one species—and monocultures support very little wildlife.

As with too many problem- solving efforts by humans, we focus on a minor issue and ignore the big picture. The real problem here is not “mowing lawns in May” but rather the creation of millions of acres of monoculture lawns and the energy, resources, water, fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides needed to keep them attractive throughout their growing season. Your summer lawn might look like a well-manicured golf course, but insects, butterflies and birds searching for a meal will find nothing they can use. Good intentions in May won’t change this.

You can mow or not mow in May as you wish, but the real solution is to give up as much of your lawn as possible and turn it into a native prairie planting that persists through the entire season of need for insects, birds and other wildlife. Maintaining good habitat for wildlife is not a part-time job, and focusing on one month out of 12 is not going to provide the support that our declining wildlife needs to survive.

Your neighbors might not like it when they see more native plantings than lawn grass on your property, but we need to push the envelope around this issue and go as far as possible to restore and maintain the natural habitat that humans have eradicated with their unending growth and sprawl.

So stop worrying about when you should or shouldn’t run your lawn mower. Convert as much of your property as you can to native plantings and select a wide diversity of native plants that grow and flower from early spring to fall. Do that and you can mow your remaining lawn whenever you want without feeling guilty about the impact on bees and other pollinators.

Gary Hess is on the board of the Rock County Conservationists and edits the group’s quarterly newsletter. He lives on a restored prairie and natural area outside Beloit.

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