Photo: Xerces Society / Molly Martin
No Mow May, Low Mow Spring
Lawns cover 40 million acres, or 2%, of land in the US, making them the single largest irrigated crop we grow. Lawns are mowed, raked, fertilized, weeded, chemically treated, and watered—sucking up time, money, and other resources. Lawns provide little benefit to wildlife, and are often harmful. Grass-only lawns lack floral resources and nesting sites for bees and are often treated with pesticides that harm bees and other invertebrates.
When we think of habitat loss, we tend to imagine bulldozers and rutted dirt, but acres of manicured lawn are as much a loss of habitat as any development site.
Re-thinking the American lawn can take a variety of forms from reducing mowing frequency or area mown to permanently converting lawn to a more diverse and natural landscape.
Why mow less in the spring?
The start of the growing season is a critical time for hungry, newly emerged native bees. Floral resources may be hard to find, especially in urban and suburban landscapes. By allowing it to grow longer, and letting flowers bloom, your lawn can provide nectar and pollen to help your bee neighbors thrive.
Mowing less creates habitat and can increase the abundance and diversity of wildlife including bees and other pollinators. One way to reduce mowing is by participating in No Mow April, No Mow May, or Low Mow Spring.
No Mow May was first popularized by Plantlife, an organization based in the United Kingdom, but is now gaining traction across North America. The goal of No Mow May is to pause mowing during the month of May, allowing flowers to bloom in your lawn to help early season pollinators. Late winter and early spring is a time when floral resources are often limited.
In 2020, residents of Appleton, Wisconsin, an affiliate of Bee City USA, became energized about No Mow May and they convinced their City Council to suspend their weed ordinance for the month of May. Over 435 registered property owners participated that year. Empowered by their success in 2020, the Appleton Bee City committee spread the word and attracted even more participants in 2021, and in 2022 it spread to communities across the country.
Though no organization officially oversees No Mow May, many Bee City USA and Bee Campus USA affiliates choose to participate. And while not mowing in May isn’t right for everyone or every region, the campaign can be a good tool for getting new people involved in pollinator conservation.
Not mowing for a few weeks is a simple step to take, but it is only one step and more is needed to transform our neighborhoods. Can you mow less all year or add flower species to your grass?
There are several studies that illustrate how reducing the frequency of mowing benefits bees, as well as butterflies, grasshoppers, and many other insects. In central Kentucky, 26 species of bees were recorded visiting dandelion and white clover in urban and suburban lawns. Researchers in Massachusetts found 93 species of bees visiting lawn flowers, with the greatest diversity and abundance on lawns mowed every two or three weeks. Meta-analyses that looked at results of many studies from Europe and North America found a significant increase in the abundance and species richness of butterflies and bees in less-frequently mowed lawns, and that increased mowing intensity resulted in a significant negative effect on plant diversity and insect diversity. (You can read longer highlights of the conservation gains from reduced mowing here.)
Some studies also indicate that less intense mowing practices lead to fewer pests, as well as potential cost savings of up to 36% for park managers that by reducing mowing frequency from 15 to 10 times per year. And it is not just bees that benefit from flowering lawns. Surveys of park users in Minneapolis found that 95% of them supported less mowing.
Learn more: Summaries of Published Studies of Conservation Benefits of Reduced Mowing
Bees need more than weeds
Just allowing weeds to grow is better than no flowers, but the typical lawn weeds may not be the best for bees, or the best neighbors to other flowers. Dandelions, for example, have pollen that is low in protein (poor nutrition for bees) and is known to suppress other flowers. You can go beyond reduced mowing by changing your lawn to include more flowering species. A “bee lawn” may include white clover (Trifolium repens) and other low-growing flowering plants such as creeping thyme (Thymus spp.), selfheal (Prunella vulgaris), and others. Some plants, such as native violets (Viola spp.), may already be present and should be encouraged as they are valuable host plants for fritillary butterflies. For more information about creating a flowering lawn please see the resources at the end of this web page.
Side benefits of mowing less, year-round
- Save water while increasing drought tolerance: Taller grass tends to have deeper roots and less water evaporates from the soil.
- Reduce air and noise pollution from gas-powered lawn equipment
- Better conditions for other invertebrates like lacewings and fireflies. They prefer longer grass.
- Save time and money: So now you’re ready to invest in more native plants!
Bees need more than long grass
Mowing less is one small step to help bees and it isn’t enough to save the bees. The best way we can protect the over 3,600 species of bees in the US is to:
- Plant a variety of native plants that bloom consistently throughout the growing season,
- Provide natural nesting sites: 70% of bees are ground nesting, 90% are solitary nesting,
- Reduce or eliminate pesticides use, and
- Spread the word: Educate friends, neighbors, and elected officials about pollinator conservation.
Every region is different. Learn what works for your habitat.
No one is in charge of No Mow May, Now Mow April, or any of the other variations. There are no set rules. What you choose to do is up to you, and what your local ordinances allow. Do what you can now, make incremental changes over time, and learn as you go.
Watch the native bees in your yard. When do they emerge? What native plants do they like? Add some height variation with spring-blooming native shrubs and trees, and see what visitors you attract to your yard.
Weed and lawn ordinance reform
If you want to participate in a No Mow or Low Mow month, start by reviewing your local rules and find out how strictly they are enforced.
Some cities and homeowners’ associations (HOAs) may have rules against longer grass or even natural yards. We encourage you to check your local ordinances and advocate for reforms to allow for more pollinator-friendly yards. Some states now have laws preventing HOAs from banning certain types of natural habitat.
Engage with your city council, health department, or other local officials. Tell them what you are doing, why, and begin a conversation about how they can support natural landscapes in their community. This fact sheet from Penn State can help arm you with facts to overcome the common myths that have led to overly restrictive weed ordinances.
If current weed and lawn ordinances do not allow for longer grass or natural plantings, a policy change might look like:
- A new weed and lawn ordinance
- An amendment to weed and lawn ordinances
- A one-time or annual suspension of some weed and lawn ordinance enforcement for a month or longer
- A No Mow or Low Mow resolution signed by your city council or county commissioners, often paired with a suspension of some weed and lawn ordinance enforcement.
- An “opt-in” program, such as a Natural Lawn Registration program to sidestep the need to re-write a health code ordinance. Under such a model, a homeowner may register their natural landscape with their local health department. The health department can then decline to fine registered properties if they are maintaining the natural landscape properly and not encouraging the spread of noxious weeds.
Tips for keeping neighbors happy
- Maintain a mowed buffer. A tidy mowed edge along sidewalks and paths can make a busy natural planting look less overwhelming, and makes these spaces look intentional rather than neglectful.
- Tidy up your yard in other ways: Leave the Leaves and Save the Stems, but remove trash or broken décor, and keep fences and borders in good repair.
- Put up a habitat sign to educate passersby. We offer free downloadable signs in English and Spanish for No Mow May, No Mow April, and Low Mow Spring (at the bottom of this page), or you can receive a pollinator habitat sign as a thank you for your donation through the Xerces Society’s Gift Center. You can also make your own sign!
Change takes time. We will go further if we work together.
Much like with growing pollinator habitat, advocacy takes time, too. We encourage you to build relationships, educate the public, and lead by example. Lawncare can be an emotional topic and it’s important to be respectful when asking people to make big changes. Keep it positive and highlight the benefits.
Present the ideas of mowing less and planting native plants as opportunities to help pollinators, not a criticism of your neighbors’ choices. Show them the beautiful, low-maintenance plants that your community can add to help our native bees: share your favorite seeds and cuttings!
Not everyone will choose to convert their yard to native plants, but with time and effort hopefully we can get people comfortable with seeing neighbors participate. More participation = more acceptance.
Go lawnless, or lawn-light
Lawns certainly have their place for some activities. But how much lawn do you really need, and to what standard must it be maintained?
- Do you need a perfect, weed-free lawn? Try hand-pulling problem weeds instead of using “weed and feed” products or spot treatments. How about adding some low-growing flowers to it?
- Can you shrink your lawn? Frame your smaller lawn with a larger pollinator garden. Plant native wildflowers, shrubs, and trees to create a more diverse, wildlife-friendly yard.
- Could you leave a portion of your lawn unmown year-round? Transform low-traffic areas, especially areas around more natural habitat, into a low-management zones so birds, bees, fireflies, and other wildlife are more protected.
- Do you want to replace your lawn? Even a small garden plot can provide high-quality pollinator habitat. Consider planting a rain garden, native trees, a pollinator garden, or a wildflower meadow—or replacing your turfgrass lawn with native lawn alternatives.
Read More about No Mow May
- Wild Ones Presents: “Weed Ordinances” w/ Rosanne Plante
- BlueThumb.org: Pollinator-Friendly (Bee) Lawn
- Natural Resources Defense Council: More Sustainable (and Beautiful) Alternatives to a Grass Lawn
- White paper from Yale’s Environmental Protection Clinic: Toward Sustainable Landscapes: Restoring the Right NOT to Mow
- Native Plant Society of the United States: Laws Promoting Native Plants
No Mow May, Low Low Spring Affiliate Promo Kit: more resources coming soon
New English language yard signs for 2023 available now, Spanish language yard signs are coming soon.