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Need an excuse not to mow your lawn? Join 'no mow May' and help pollinators

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Need an excuse not to cut your lawn? Here's one - scientists say leaving your grass a little longer in the spring can actually help bees and other pollinators. A few dozen U.S. cities have joined a program called No Mow May Here's Chuck Quirmbach of member station WUWM in Milwaukee.

CHUCK QUIRMBACH, BYLINE: Matthew Normansell is standing in the small side yard of his house in Appleton, Wis., and he likes what he's starting to see poke through the ground.

MATTHEW NORMANSELL: You can already see the dandelions starting to pop up. You get a little bit of the creeping charlie, a few small violets, a lot of daisies as well. But they'll all be flowering kind of at some point during May and providing, you know, pollen to these pollinating insects.

QUIRMBACH: Those plants will flower in May because, Normansell says, he'll be leaving his lawn mower in the garage and joining about 500 other Appleton residents taking part in a city-backed program to not mow at all for a month. This community of 75,000 has become a U.S. leader in the No Mow May movement, which began in England and has spread to more than 30 cities, mostly in the Midwest. That's where May is considered a key time for pollinators to come out of hibernation or their winter habitat. Israel Del Toro teaches biology at Lawrence University in Appleton. He says an initial study of unmowed yards in the city shows a fivefold increase in the number of bees, and they're very hungry in the spring.

ISRAEL DEL TORO: So when we leave our weeds - or things we would normally call weeds - to grow, those are like little cheeseburgers for our pollinators, and they're able to get some cheap calories really, really fast and put on some weight that'll give them a leg up for the season.

QUIRMBACH: In many U.S. cities, not cutting your grass in May could get you a citation, but communities taking part in this initiative have agreed to waive that. Appleton Mayor Jake Woodford is taking part in the No Mow program, too.

JAKE WOODFORD: And it's, you know, not been without its hiccups or its frustrations from some community members. But by and large, there's just been incredible support for the effort, a lot of buy-in, a lot of participation.

QUIRMBACH: But hearing about increasing pollinator populations has not convinced everyone of the value of letting the lawn grow.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAWN MOWER)

QUIRMBACH: At the service area of the Northside Power Center in Appleton, Steve Schick says during a rainy springtime, the grass can grow really tall by June.

STEVE SCHICK: Now you've got to struggle getting it back under control. And a lot of people will have a problem with their mowers when they try to get it back under control. And they - a lot of times it will damage them.

QUIRMBACH: Backers of No Mow May advise raising the lawn mower blade height in June or using a string trimmer first. Appleton is one of about 150 communities with a Bee City designation under a program coordinated by the Oregon-based Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. The group's Matthew Shepherd says, while valuable, not mowing is just a first step.

MATTHEW SHEPHERD: It's not like the endpoint. You know, we can't say, gosh, we've let our lawn grow; we've saved the bees, yay.

QUIRMBACH: Shepherd and others say they hope keeping lawn mowers in storage for a month will further habitat awareness and the central role pollinators play.

For NPR News, I'm Chuck Quirmbach in Milwaukee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Chuck Quirmbach is a Milwaukee-based reporter who covers developments and issues in Southeastern Wisconsin that are of statewide interest. He has numerous years of experience covering state government, elections, the environment, energy, racial diversity issues, clergy abuse claims and major baseball stadium doings. He enjoys covering all topics.