Workin’ it From Home: Buzz-worthy Backyards

Workin’ it From Home: Buzz-worthy Backyards

WFH: Workin’ it From Home! This series is about supporting our environmental efforts at work by taking sustainable actions at home. Through interviews with members of the Making Moves community, we’ll learn to:

» Host zero-waste events.

» Produce pollinator-friendly yards.

» Lower our energy consumption.

» Reduce food waste.

Buzz-worthy Backyards

An old proverb in the Northern Hemisphere goes, “April showers bring May flowers.” Even with variabilities in temperature and rainfall patterns, this saying continues to hold true.

In the past two weeks, my yard has transformed seemingly overnight from shades of winter browns to bursts of green grass and leaves, yellow and white daffodils and dandelions, and a full spectrum of red to purple buds waiting to bloom.

The rainbow of colors in the yard beckons the Spring “B”s of birds, bees, butterflies, and – my least favorite – bugs (even though I know they are critical to ecosystem health).

While the beauty and resurgence of outdoor activity are invigorating, they do not come without their challenges. Namely, do I mow all this stuff down to keep it from taking over everything, or do I let it be natural and wild? What should I plant that is good for the environment and nice to look at? And how should I respond if my neighbors scoff at our messy lawns?

To help guide us through answering these questions, I invited Dr. Lara Zwarun to share her experience with creating and caring for pollinator-friendly gardens. Lara is an Associate Professor at the University of Missouri St. Louis in the Department of Communication and Media.

Hi Lara! First things first, what exactly is a pollinator-friendly yard?

Think of it as the kind of place bees, butterflies, and birds would leave a 5-star review: “Love this place! Great menu, great environment–I’ll be back!”

We want those pollinators to come buzz around our plants because pollination is an essential part of how they produce food or flowers. So, a pollinator-friendly yard is anywhere that makes the pollinators happy, somewhere they want to visit and hang out.

On the other hand, if your yard is not pollinator-friendly and they don’t visit, your plants might still be there, but you won’t get the good stuff from them: for example, you might end up with a tomato plant without many tomatoes.

And that’s true everywhere, not just in our yards: a lot of the food we eat, whether we’re growing our own or buying it at the store–depends on pollination or visits from pollinators to move pollen around among what’s growing.

So, what in a yard makes pollinators happy?

They’re pretty down-to-earth, those pollinators. They like grass that’s tall enough to hide and protect them, so don’t mow as often or as short. They like plants and flowers native to their area, so it’s good to have some of those in the yard. And they like access to open ground, so don’t cover every square inch of your space in a thick layer of mulch.

There has been a lot of buzz around saving the bees (pun intended) by mowing less frequently and planting more wildflowers. Do these actions have positive benefits beyond protecting the bees?

Sure. If you have a gas mower, mowing less means less pollution. Mowing less also benefits humans because it leaves more time for rest and weekend enjoyment! Wildflowers are pretty, and if they are native, they should grow easily, eliminating the need for chemical fertilizer that gets washed into and harms our waterways.

And what do the pollinators have against mulch?

I love this question because it lets me touch on something important. Many of you reading this have probably learned to equate saving the bees with saving the honeybees. You might buy local honey or even have your own hive, and you feel like you are helping solve the pollinator crisis. You’re not crazy to have absorbed this message–it’s been presented to you on cereal boxes and signs at coffee shops and in lots of other places. But you’ve been misled!

Honeybees are a species of bees with very good PR. That’s because they are actually domesticated livestock, like dairy cows. They are fed and given medicine–and they have an industry trade association, and it has lobbyists. That industry is happy for you to think of honeybees when you think of bees. It helps that from a young age, bees have appeared in our storybooks and movies as cute, black-and-yellow striped creatures that live in a hive.

But here are three big truth bombs (and the answer to your question). One, most bees are not honey bees and don’t live in a hive. Many of them live in the ground, where they lay eggs. And if you cover that ground up with mulch, you’re removing their habitat! That is NOT pollinator-friendly.

Two, these other bee species (bumblebees and other wild bees) pollinate a much wider variety of foods than honeybees. Honeybees can only pollinate about 30% of the food we eat, so we need the other bee species to pollinate the rest.

Three: recent research increasingly shows that honeybees kept in hives will outcompete their wild counterparts. Translation: particularly in areas where there are a lot of beekeepers, the wild bees get pushed out. Sadly, many people who are aware of and care about the pollinator crisis think they are helping address it by supporting the honeybee industry, but they are actually doing the opposite. Sorry.

How has the pollinator-yard movement grown or shifted over the past few years?

There are encouraging signs that like-minded people are finding each other and working together. As a result, there has been pushback against HOAs (Home Owner Associations) and municipalities with ordinances that prohibit taller and more diverse plantings in front yards.

Some towns promote and support formal initiatives like “No Mow May,” in which people are urged to avoid that first-nice-day-of-spring compulsion to cut their grass really short and give the bees some time to emerge. A growing number of backyard conservation programs provide people with support and recognition for making their property more environmentally friendly, and enrollments in these programs have increased as well.

Unfortunately, despite this growth, there is still a lot of homogeneity among the people who participate in these programs. They are predominantly white, older, educated, and suburban. It’s absolutely ludicrous for environmentalism to be the purview of only certain people. We need programs and efforts that are genuinely inclusive and whose memberships reflect society at large. 

I recently conducted a content analysis of backyard conservation programs’ websites and noted that a lot of their content seems to target people who are already doing pro-environmental stuff. That’s not a smart strategy for growth. We need all hands on deck. Everyone needs pollinators, and everyone can help.

If someone currently has a perfectly manicured lawn, what is the first step they could take to begin the transition toward building out a pollinator-friendly yard?

You don’t have to do everything at once! (In fact, you don’t ever have to do everything.) The easiest thing to start with is truly easy: mow less. If you usually mow every week, push it back to every ten days or go from 10 days to 14.

And you can extend this ‘laziness’ into fall–don’t bag up all your leaves and twigs. Put them in a corner of your property–female bees will hang out there over the winter. If and when the time comes to plant something, make it native.

It sounds like these steps can save us time and money, but many people are concerned about their lawns looking “messy” and being judged by their neighbors. What can help us and others overcome these feelings of doubt about going wild in their yards?

I’ve focused on this a lot in my research! Our society definitely has an aesthetic that a nicely-edged, frequently mowed lawn is a sign of a “nice” house and a “nice” neighborhood. I have found some evidence of people being pressured by their neighbors to mow their grass, and I have found much more evidence of people assuming their neighbors wouldn’t approve of them letting their grass grow.

I have some ideas about how this norm might evolve over time. I like to say, “Native doesn’t mean neglected.” What I mean is you don’t have to change your whole property into a meadow. Use visual cues that signal tidiness and upkeep–maybe leave some of your yard as a traditional lawn, or keep a more mowed strip near the sidewalk and go low-mow further back.

I’m also very interested in the potential of lawn signs. Many backyard programs offer these to participants, or you can make or buy your own. A small plaque saying, “Don’t mind the weeds, I’m saving bees,” or something similar gives you an excuse for your landscaping choices and educates others. You can also talk to neighbors about what you’re doing if you live somewhere where people are out in their yards.

How can folks who don’t have lawns and yards contribute to the cause?

You might be able to have a pollinator-friendly container garden. You can help spread the word in your personal networks, and you could join local and national organizations supporting pollinators. There’s internal work you can do, too. You can challenge yourself to expand your tolerance and change your aesthetic of what a nice yard looks like. If you’ve been misinformed, you can correct your belief that “saving honeybees” will solve the pollinator crisis.

What do you feel is needed to scale up this movement and shift the status quo on what lawns are supposed to look like?

Societal shifts take time, but they do happen. Look at how attitudes towards smoking cigarettes have evolved or how mainstream tattoos and piercings are now compared to a few decades ago.

Environmental advocacy organizations need intentional communication strategies that increase not just the number but also the diversity of participants. I think this is how that kind of change occurs: norms shift as everyone feels welcome and is included.

Also, don’t be afraid to start small: your little bit alone doesn’t save the planet, but American yards are like a big, obnoxious turf carpet rolled out all across the country, and if most people made some changes to how they plant and maintain them, there would be a significant increase in the amount of pollinator-friendly green space.

Side note by Brooke: I’m currently reading Michael Pollan’s “Second Nature” book, and the second chapter, titled “Why mow?” dives into how manicured, short lawns became ubiquitous across the United States.

Where can we get additional information and resources on starting and growing pollinator-friendly yards?

Quick reminder: you don’t need resources to mow less!

But if you decide to go further, all kinds of great websites have tips, videos, checklists, etc. Xerces Society, Wild Ones, Audubon Society’s Bring Conservation Home, and Homegrown National Park are a few big ones.

Google the name of your city or state plus “backyard,” and you will likely turn up regional or local advice. Increasingly, plants at garden centers have labels indicating whether they are native and how much watering they require. Depending on where you live, there could be university extension programs or a botanical garden with people to offer help.

And if you look into these places and don’t see anyone that looks like you, consider being a trailblazer–you might make it easier for the next person to get involved! Or look elsewhere: the intersectional environmentalism movement is gaining momentum, and you don’t have to hang out with fuddy-duddy old flower club ladies–unless, of course, that’s your jam! 🙂


You can learn more about Dr. Lara Zwarun’s work here and here.

Up next! Reducing energy consumption at home (without simply sitting in the dark).