In Wisconsin: Stowing Mowers, Pleasing Bees

April 17, 2022
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As I drove last May through Appleton, Wis., the small city offered up a series of idyllic scenes: children playing on tree-lined streets, couples walking their dogs, and all the while, the wind carrying the sweetness of spring.

But something was unusual here. The lawns of many of the homes were wild. Resembling miniature meadows, they sported long grass, bright yellow dandelions and carpets of purple creeping Charlie — a far cry from the traditional American lawn.

These homes were not abandoned or neglected, and no stacks of newspapers festooned their porches. Rather, the city had asked residents to put away their lawn mowers for the month of May. This allowed plants typically identified as weeds — including violets, white clover and dandelions — to flower.

Appleton’s No Mow May initiative had a clear purpose: to save the bees — and not just honeybees (which are European imports), but also native bees, such as bumble bees, mining bees and sweat bees.

Bees are facing catastrophic declines. In North America, nearly one in four native bee species is imperiled, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, partly because of habitat loss, pesticide use, climate change and urbanization.

Lawns typically provide poor habitat for bees. But if allowed to flower, lawn weeds — perhaps better characterized as plants other than grass — can provide rare spring food for bees emerging from hibernation.

Appleton, some 200 miles north of Chicago, is a small college city nestled on the shores of the meandering Fox River. Two assistant professors at a local liberal arts college, Dr. Israel Del Toro and Dr. Relena Ribbons of Lawrence University, knew that No Mow May was popular in Britain. They wondered if the initiative might take root here, too.

They began working with the Appleton Common Council, and, in 2020, Appleton became the first city in the United States to adopt No Mow May, with 435 homes registering to take part.

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