Pollinator-Friendly Practices Any Plant Lover Can Embrace

Even if you, like me, don’t have a lawn of your own, you probably have a vision for how they’re “supposed” to look. In the U.S., most of us cultivate our lawns to consist entirely of short, uniform blades of Kentucky bluegrass turf without a dandelion or weed in sight, said Laurie Schneider, co-executive director of the Pollinator Friendly Alliance.

Woman holding butterfly in her hand. Rewire PBS Our Future Pollinators
Pollinators, like butterflies, help out 80 percent of the world’s plants, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Photo courtesy of Laurie Schneider.

Meeting those #lawngoals might make us feel as if we’re succeeding at responsibly managing our properties, but Schneider, an organic farmer, bee keeper and photographer, recommends setting a different goal: creating “our own ecological, biological diversity in our yards, or on our porches, or what have you.”

To help pollinator insects, like bees, butterflies and ants who help pollinate Earth’s flowering plants, and other vulnerable animals, we need to revamp how we think about an ideal lawn, she said. Here are some of her suggestions for getting started.

Look for ‘clean’ plants

Don’t buy plants that have been treated with pesticides, herbicides, insecticides or fungicides. All of these can hurt pollinators and other wildlife.

Plants at big box stores are typically treated, Schneider said. Also, “if a plant comes over state lines or from another country, you can pretty much bet it’s been treated.”

Schneider recommended researching the practices used by the plant suppliers you’re considering, especially if one of your goals is to provide food and habitat for butterflies, bees and other pollinators. After all, it would be a tragedy to discover the plants you carefully selected to feed these struggling creatures were actually poisoning them.

Seek safe seeds

You might be thinking, “I’ll bypass this issue by growing plants from seeds instead.”

But you still need to be aware of one snag: pesticide-coated seeds. While less common in flower seeds than in agricultural products, coated seeds are unregulated in many places and “this information isn’t always stated on the package,” Schneider noted.

Some of these seeds are even coated with systemic insecticides, or neonicotinoids. These products are called systemic for a reason–they are absorbed into the vasculature of the plant they’re used on, making all of the plant’s parts highly toxic, according to Schneider. There are also concerns about these harmful substances polluting the water, soil and air.

Have the talk

A half black bumble bee with a purple flower. Rewire PBS Our Future Pollinators
Bees are the classic pollinators—and they’re our friends, not our foes. Photo courtesy of Laurie Schneider.

Explore local suppliers, especially organic ones. Unless you already know how their plants have been handled, both within the store and by the supplier, ask specific questions about whether they have been sprayed with or dunked in a substance that’s toxic to pollinators. Find out if they were grown from coated seeds. The Pollinator Friendly Alliance has a handout you can use to guide this conversation, with a special focus on systemic insecticides.

If the store isn’t able to answer your questions, you might want to shop elsewhere.

“The conscientious gardening store will have that information,” Schneider said.

Celebrate dandelions and other pollinator helpers

Don’t eradicate dandelions, clover and other helpful weeds. Rather, celebrate them as critical food sources for bees and other pollinators.

For many bees, “dandelion, in particular, is the first nectar source in the spring,” Schneider said. Without that food source, more bees will die.

If beneficial “weeds” creep among the flowers in your garden, try to let them be, Schneider said. If they start to crowd out your other plants, manage them using a natural approach, such as pulling certain sections up by the roots.

Mow your lawn less

Mowing lawns every two to three weeks (rather than weekly) helps support bees in suburban habitats, according to research from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the USDA Forest Service.

Don’t sweat bare patches

Tolerate small patches of bare soil in your yard. These patches provide valuable nesting and hibernation areas for the majority of bee species. Leaf piles, sand, woodchip piles and curled-up weeds also make great bee nesting spots.

Trade turf grass for a flowering lawn

Flowering lawns, or bee lawns, attract and nourish bees and other pollinators. These lawns provide an abundance of plant diversity, including flowering plants, turf grasses, and flowering lawn weeds, such as dandelions and creeping Charlie, according to the Bee Lab at the University of Minnesota.

A flowering lawn provides invaluable habitat for important pollinators. Photo courtesy of Laurie Schneider.

While traditional, turf grass lawns are “generally established for aesthetic purposes showing neatness and care,” flowering lawns are more resilient to environmental pressures (such as shade, drought, flooding and low nutrient availability), the lab’s website notes. Also, these lawns are easy on the eyes, providing an abundance of beautiful flowers.

Interested in creating your own? There are a couple of different ways to make them, depending on whether you want to start from scratch or work with an existing lawn. Handouts from the Pollinator Friendly Alliance and the University of Minnesota Bee Lab explain the steps to getting started. (Note: The first tip sheet recommends that you “remove existing vegetation” using organic methods, if you plan to start from scratch. Use shovels on smaller patches, Schneider advises, adding that if those won’t suffice, you may need to use a turf cutter.)

Don’t have a yard?

Even if you rent, or have a different living situation without a yard, you can help pollinator populations.

Last year, my partner and I raised painted lady butterflies in a small enclosure in our townhouse. We bought them from Insect Lore, a company that supplies you with everything you need to raise them, as well as instructions about their care and release. (Of course, before releasing a species in your neighborhood, make certain it’s native.)

Join a community garden. Talk with your friends and family about how to help pollinators. Urge your legislators to take action to protect pollinators.

Grow potted, native, pollinator-friendly plants in a small space on your balcony or porch. A few flowers may not save a species, but it might be enough to save a few valued creatures.

Rachel Crowell

Rachel Crowell is an Iowa-based writer exploring science and math. Rachel lives with Delilah, a golden retriever a stranger once called “the cutest thing in America.” Outside of STEM topics, Rachel also welcomes writing opportunities on everything from art to finance. Follow them on Twitter at @writesRCrowell.