In a typical Michigan May, spring is accompanied by faster grass growth and increased yard work. But this year provided unexpected relief for many homeowners in Ann Arbor when City Council passed a resolution on April 4 encouraging homeowners to refrain from mowing throughout the month of May to protect pollinators — such as hummingbirds, bees and butterflies — in the early spring season. Ann Arbor’s resolution was soon replicated by Dexter, Albion and Royal Oak, contributing to the No Mow May movement in Michigan.
The No Mow May initiative was first popularized by Plantlife, a non-profit based in the U.K. that focuses on wildlife preservation. The initiative highlights the importance of pollinators in food production and the significance of lawn ecosystems, which could provide bees with habitats and nutrition in the early spring season.
Gordon Fitch, University of Michigan alum and ecologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, conducted extensive pollinator research in Ann Arbor during the years he was a Ph.D. student. In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Fitch discussed how Ann Arbor sustains a diverse bee population and said No Mow May is a significant first step in maintaining this diversity.
“When we talk about bees, most people think of the honeybees and bumblebees, but in our research, we found over 100 species of bees in the greater Ann Arbor area,” Fitch said. “In all these cases, there’s a real need for pollen and nectar when (bees) are first emerging in the springtime. I think focusing our efforts on encouraging people not to mow lawns in the spring does make a lot of sense from the perspective of nutrition.”
While Ann Arbor has been promoting pollinator-friendly practices for years, many residents were unaware of No Mow May until Appleton, Wis. first adopted the practice and started attracting national media attention over the past few months.
Rita Mitchell, vice chair of the Ann Arbor’s Environmental Commission, said late awareness led to a reduced timeline for the initiative.
“Many of us got introduced to No Mow May just recently through neighbors and friends,” Mitchell said. “It was brought to my attention by a number of people who forwarded me a New York Times article … One month (between the city’s resolution and May) is not enough time, for sure.”
Nevertheless, according to Mitchell, 394 households registered for No Mow May with the city this year. Mitchell said the actual number of participants may exceed this due to unreported participation.
The city has an iNaturalist group to document new pollinator species induced by No-Mow. Mitchell said she leveraged this platform to expand her knowledge on the pollinator ecosystem over the past month. She said she enjoyed this opportunity to learn from members of her community and build connections between hosting plants and pollinators.
“Gradually there are a few (pollinator species) I know based on the plant where I see them,” Mitchell said. “If someone said to me, ‘Oh, I saw a caterpillar on that Pussytoes plant.’ I would say ‘Well, that is an American Lady butterfly.’ It’s just kind of cool to have those kinds of connections.”
The appeal of No Mow May is not exclusive to environmental activists and knowledgeable landscapers.
In an interview with The Daily, Ann Arbor Ward 3 resident Scott Ellis said he appreciated the opportunity to sit back and protect the pollinators.
“I first heard about (No Mow May) through neighborhood groups,” Ellis said. “I am not the most diligent about cutting my lawns anyway, so that’s a perfect opportunity for me to participate.”
While research has found that No Mow May could multiply pollinator abundance and richness, individual experiences might vary due to the composition or location of their yards. Ellis said he didn’t notice a significant increase in the number of pollinators in his yard.
“Not really more bees,” Ellis said. “I only noticed more rabbits eating the growing dandelions.”
Campus Management, Inc., a large rental company in Ann Arbor, also participated in No Mow May this year. Christopher Heaton, the owner and property manager, said in an interview with The Daily that most of the company’s rental properties near the campus ceased mowing for the earlier half of May. He said their management came to this decision in spite of communication challenges with both the renters and the mowing contractor.
“We usually mow the week prior to graduation, to have our properties look freshly cut when parents and families come for graduation,” Heaton said. “We couldn’t do that if we were going to participate. The lawn mowing contractor was also a little bit concerned because they got paid per pass. They’re going to lose a little revenue because we delayed (mowing).”
Despite the challenges this year, Heaton said No Mow May and pollinator protection align with Campus Management’s values and that the company plans on participating in No Mow May next year if the conditions are right.
“We’re not disabused of the idea of participating in this,” Heaton said. “In the future, I think we will be doing this again. I hope we can even go a little bit closer to June, but I guess it would be a year-by-year decision.”
With 2,200 acres of land and 500 acres of mowed area, Ann Arbor parks face even tougher challenges when adjusting their mowing schedule, which severely limits their ability to participate in No Mow May. Scott Spooner, the deputy manager of Ann Arbor Park Operations, said in an interview with The Daily that the parks must continue to mow as usual in most places this year.
“In the best-case scenario, like in the spring when the grass is growing long, we mow every two weeks,” Spooner said. “I just came from another part that was mowed two weeks ago and the grass is already pretty long. If I were to not mow it at all during May, it would be another two weeks before some parks could be mowed for the first time.”
Ann Arbor Ward 3 resident Jeannine Palms, a steward for Buhr Park who created several wet meadows over the past two decades, noticed that Buhr Park was still mowed as usual this year. She said she outlined some suggestions to the city parks for them to accommodate No Mow May.
“I suggested to them: ‘Would you just leave these several areas where there are flowers going over the place, the areas that are wet and the areas with pollinator habitats like the bee hives unmowed?’” Palms said.
Moving forward, Mitchell said the environmental commission plans to work with the communication departments to make sure the initiative is communicated well ahead of time. Mitchell said she hopes No Mow May can shift the aesthetic norms in lawn care: a departure from the tidy turf tradition rooted in American history.
Mitchell said she often refers to online videos of Douglas W. Tallamy — a professor and chair for entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware — to learn more about ethical lawn care.
“His concept is to move away from what is a manicured yard where everything is in precise lines to one that allows a lot less structure, that allows the grass to grow and fall down,” Mitchell said. “Having a less strictly cleaned up yard and becoming more tolerant and appreciative of different looks is something that I’d like to see in our community and across the U.S.”
Daily Staff Reporter Chen Lyu can be reached at email@example.com.