APPLETON, WI — Nearly 400 miles northwest of Mansfield in Appleton, Wisconsin, the city has an initiative that involves not just their parks department, but a huge chunk of the community reducing mowing to increase wildflowers.
"No Mow May" is a conservation initiative first popularized by the UK-based organization Plantlife, and it's gaining traction across North America. Under No Mow May, communities suspend the enforcement of their long-grass rules for the month, allowing property owners to delay lawn care as a way to promote pollinator-friendly habitats.
In 2020, Appleton's city council agreed to suspend their weed ordinance for the month of May. More than 435 registered property owners participated in the campaign, amounting to around 40 acres of land that was protected for pollinators.
Researchers from Lawrence University in Appleton collected data on the abundance (the number of individuals) and species richness (the number of species) of flowers and bees found in un-mown yards of 20 properties participating in No Mow May. They then compared those numbers to the abundance and richness of flowers and bees found in nearby urban parks that are regularly mowed.
Turns out, the benefits of an un-manicured yard are plentiful: A sampling of lawns that participated in No Mow May found a five-fold increase in bee abundance and a three-fold increase in bee diversity.
"The big message here is that this shouldn't be a one-year trial experiment," researcher Israel Del Toro said in June 2020. "This should become part of our regular culture. If we want to have a prolonged, positive effect on our pollinators, these are the types of practices that we should start considering as a community."
Appleton is also promoting pollinators by being an affiliate of Bee City USA, just like another city in Richland County: In October 2021, Shelby passed a resolution to officially become part of Bee City USA, with initiatives like a city-owned, 13-acre pollinating field and the housing of privately-owned beehives at the wastewater treatment plant.
The resolution struck a personal chord with Shelby Mayor Steve Schag.
"I remember as a boy growing up on Hickory Lane (in Madison Township) it seemed like when you walked across your yard, there were always dozens of honeybees humming along collecting nectar/pollen from clusters of clover and bright yellow dandelions," he recalled. "Today, I walk across my yard and wonder, 'Where are all of the honeybees?'"
Part of Shelby's initiative, in addition to hosting educational events and adopting non-chemical pest management methods, is to create or expand pollinator-friendly habitat on public and private land. This means identifying Shelby property that could be enhanced with pollinator-friendly plantings, and creating a list of recommended native plants found at local suppliers.
Schag said becoming an affiliate of Bee City USA was also about bringing citizens together to make their communities better places for hard-working pollinators of all species, which are key to a healthy environment and sustainable food supply.
"Creating pollinator habitat is not only good for pollinators, but those plots of native plants and flowers are very pleasant to the eye as well," Schag said. "In Shelby we are in the process of transforming acres of property that required hours of summer mowing into colorful, productive sites that benefit both people and pollinators."
In the borough of Southwark in London, England, as more city councils are favoring "managed messiness" over well-manicured lawns, parks manager Will Walpole said people are increasingly understanding of the need to share our cities with wildlife.
“I think if we decided to do this maybe five to 10 years ago I would have had an inbox full of complaints about how we didn’t cut the grass. We didn’t get that this year,” Walpole said in 2021. “I think public opinion has moved a little bit towards understanding the climate emergency and how we need to improve biodiversity, not just do the same thing in the same way we’ve always done it.”
However, on this side of the pond, Abrams worries public opinion is a bit different.
"There is some pushback when the parks aren't perfectly manicured; you run into people who like their parks mowed like their front yard," Abrams said. "So we do get complaints about it not being completely mowed, and that's understandable.
"People have expectations for how things have been done the last 50 years."
In Appleton, detractors contended No Mow May would make the city look trashy, aggravate pollen allergies and start or magnify conflicts among neighbors. Appleton's director of public works Paula Vandehey said in 2019, the city received 275 weed complaints, compared to 232 complaints in 2020 and 287 complaints in 2021 after No Mow May was officially instituted.
"As much as we need more bees in these neighborhoods, we need harmony amongst the people who live together in this city," said Appleton council member Sheri Hartzheim.
However, a disgruntled few were not enough to deter the city from voting last Wednesday to make No Mow May a permanent annual fixture of Appleton. The effort even expanded to include eight more Wisconsin communities in 2021.
"Good things are being done," said researcher Israel Del Toro. "Our bees are being fed, our citizens are being educated, and we are building a community that is much more resilient."
TOMORROW: Could we explore the possibility of an increased wildflower presence in Mansfield?