Many people have heard the mantra “save the bees,” but still more don’t know which bees need saving. In North America, it’s not the honey bee that needs saved! Honey bees are actually viewed as an agricultural animal in the U.S. and originally came here with early settlers from Europe. They are only able to survive with the help of beekeepers, and the number of cultivated hives in North America is doing fine! The bees that really need help are our native bees, like the bumblebee and leafcutter bee. The ICUN has categorized 28% of our native bumblebees as ‘threatened species’ and 50% of our leafcutter bees as ‘at risk.'
So, how can we help?
First off, one way to assist these bees is by giving them more pollen sources. Second, by using natural fertilizers.
If you think about it, what takes up the most space in yards and uses the most pesticides and herbicides? Not flowers, but grass. Our lawns in the U.S. have been a source of pride for homeowners since the suburbs of the 1950s. So understandably, we don’t want to do away with them. What can we do to break up these acres of monotonous, pollen-less spaces?
One solution is to slowly replace the grass in your lawn with an alternative flowering groundcover. There are many options that are native to North America, or at least noninvasive. For example, not much work needs to be done to make the switch from grass to clover. Usually, it only takes a bag of seeds to spread directly over your current lawn, and patience! Bees will especially love strawberry clover. While clover is not from the United States, pollinators will appreciate them. However, before you go this route, make sure it is not considered invasive where you live!
Some other great options to consider are your everyday herbs. Though many aren’t native either, they will benefit the pollinators! Both thyme and oregano make beautiful lawns that remain at ankle-height. The downside to this option is that your thyme will need the grass to be gone before it can flourish. There are different ways to accomplish this, though the fastest will most likely be manually de-sodding your yard.
The predominant grasses used to fill lawns in the United States actually came with settlers from Europe. We see this with grasses like Kentucky Bluegrass, Tall Fescue, and Bermuda. They definitely aren’t all bad, and offer wonderful erosion control, as well as food for livestock.
In fact, these grasses can be kept as is and offer just as much food to pollinators as your flowering lawn alternatives. However, in order to provide pollen, Kentucky Bluegrass needs to grow tall enough to flower (which some neighborhoods might not allow). Another option would be to let those beautiful yellow dandelions grow up through the grasses and bloom!
Lawns aside, it's always beneficial to plant native flowers in your garden, or have an area of your yard dedicated to native flowers that only grow a few inches in height. These areas can still be easily accessible and won’t need much maintenance if shorter plants are used. In Pennsylvania, according to The Spruce, this approach looks like planting some creeping phlox, creeping mint, Appalachian barren strawberry, woodland stonecrop, common periwinkle, or lamb’s ear. You can tame these plants to a corner of your yard, or let them grow wild for a more natural look. Either way is wonderful, because they will feed and potentially house our bees.
Anything to add variety to the bees’ pollen loads helps, but if you’re not ready to switch your lawn to something besides grass, that’s still okay! You can easily plant some native flower species in your garden, and spread some native grasses across your lawn instead. Grasses like Eastern Star Sedge, Beak Grass, and Pennsylvania Sedge all originated in North America and are used to the northeastern climate. This allows them to adapt faster, and need less care than grasses that are not originally from the United States.
Now that we know some more sustainable grass-alternatives, how do we conquer the problem of fertilizers? Thankfully, there’s an easy, built-in solution to this problem. During the transition from a grass lawn to a flowering alternative you can use your leftover scraps from gardening or other yard waste to compost! Your compost can then be used as a natural fertilizer for your native-plant landscape. If you are curious about composting, Refillism is offering a composting workshop on Thursday, May 11th with Thoughtfully Sustainable. We also have options for composting bins and liners that are good for holding food scraps before they’re ready to make the journey to an outdoor compost pile.
If you decide to make the switch to a pollinator-friendly lawn, know you are helping many species of bees! You’re enhancing levels of pollen sources, and potentially decreasing toxic emissions let off by our lawn mowers. Every step counts!
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