What is a Bee Lawn?

History of bee lawns

Jabr, Ferris. 2013. Outgrowing the traditional grass lawn. Scientific American. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/brainwaves/outgrowing-the-traditional-grass-lawn/

For most of history, however, mixed plant lawns and non-grass lawns have been the exception, in part because a smooth, well-kept, lush grass lawn became as much a symbol as a functional part of one’s property. In the early 19th century, vast grass lawns surrounding manors were not only aesthetically pleasing—providing unobstructed views of an estate—they were also further proof of wealth. To keep their lawns neat and trim, British aristocrats and landed gentry had to look after grazing animals—most commonly a flock of sheep—or hire laborers to slice through overgrown grass with scythes.Eventually, the idea of a grass lawn migrated to America, where it has evolved in its own way. At first, early colonists planted gardens of edible and medicinal plants, not having the time or money to maintain a lawn. Grasses native to America were generally too unruly to make neat lawns anyhow. Some wealthier citizens wanted to imitate the lawns that surrounded abbeys and mansions in Britain, however, and suitable turfgrasses were imported from Europe and Asia. English engineer Edwin Beard Budding changed lawncare forever when he invented the lawn mower in 1830—although it was a bulky wrought iron contraption that often dug up the soil. Others improved this first mower, making it lighter and sleeker. People on either side of the Atlantic could now mow modest-sized lawns themselves instead of requiring dozens or hundreds of workers or a flock of sheep.

Michael Pollan has pinpointed the 1860s as a pivotal moment in the history of American lawn: in that decade, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted designed the suburban community of Riverside, Illinois. Olmsted forbade fences and walls and ran a seamless ribbon of green lawns in front of each row of houses. Around the same time, influential landscape designers such as Andrew Jackson Downing and Frank J. Scott published popular books advocating the lawn as a necessity for any respectable homeowner. “A smooth, closely shaven surface of grass is by far the most essential element of beauty on the grounds of a suburban house,” Scott wrote. “Let your lawn be your home's velvet robe, and your flowers its not too promiscuous decoration.”

The lawn sprinkler appeared in 1871 and garden hoses became cheaper and more durable. Between 1947 and 1951 Levitt & Sons, Inc. built the first mass-produced suburban community: every one of the 17,000 houses had a lawn. Levittown became a model for suburbs everywhere and each new generation of homebuyers inherited houses with grass lawns. Despite America’s devotion to private property, any one homeowner’s lawn became every neighbor’s business. A well-manicured lawn—or, conversely, an untended jungle—was a reflection not just of its owners, but also of the entire surrounding community. Even today, surveys show that—in contrast to citizens of the U.K.—Americans care a great deal about the state of their neighbors’ lawns. In a particularly memorable scene from F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby—who lives in one of the grandest homes in the posh West Egg—gives his neighbor Nick Carraway's modest house a makeover, including a well needed shave for his "ragged lawn."

Today, the continental U.S. has more than 40 million acres of residential and commercial grass lawns, a number properly calculated for the first time in the early 2000s by Cristina Milesi of NASA and her colleagues using satellite data and aerial photos. In terms of acreage, turfgrass is on par with wheat, the country's fourth largest crop. All those lawns provide some clear benefits to people and the environment: they suck up carbon dioxide—a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere—potentially mitigating global warming (as long as establishing, mowing and fertilizing a lawn does not produce too much carbon dioxide and nitric oxide to negate the benefit); they prevent soil erosion and dissipate heat, counteracting the urban heat island effect (in which cities and towns full of metal and concrete retain much more heat than surrounding rural areas); grass lawns are ideal for pick-up games of soccer, rugby and touch football; they give young children a safe and soft outdoor space in which to play; and—as more and more ecopsychology studies demonstrate—green spaces reduce stress, restore attention, elevate mood and make people feel better about life in general.Ultimately, however, the consequences of our obsession with pristine grass lawns may undercut any benefits. In addition to depriving both native pollinators and honeybees of wild habitat and food—and thereby threatening our agricultural system—lawncare guzzles water, spews smog and soaks the earth in potentially harmful chemicals. Milesi’s computer simulations revealed that all the nation’s lawns demand about 200 gallons of potable water per person per day. Some research suggests that gardens and parks more or less left alone capture much more carbon than highly cultivated grass lawns. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that gas-powered lawnmowers—which emit 11 times more air pollution than a new car for every hour of operation—contribute as much as five percent of the smog in some areas of the U.S. Every summer, Americans spill 17,000,000 gallons of gasoline when refueling mowers and other garden equipment. And of the approximately 90 million American households with a yard or garden, 45 million use chemical fertilizers, 46 million use insecticides and 47 million use chemical weed-killers. Such chemicals—many of which, especially older varieties, have known health risks—contaminate natural habitat and seep into our homes and drinking water.

A conventional lawn is also a complete perversion of grass’s typical life cycle. Lawn grasses fall into two general categories: cool-season species, such as fescue and bluegrass, and warm-season species, such as Bermuda and zoysia. During the summer, wild cool-season grasses stop photosynthesizing, turn brown and grow far more slowly if at all in order to conserve energy; in the fall, they rebound. Conversely, wild warm-season grasses become dormant in cooler months and flourish in the summer. To keep our grass lawns green year-round, we continuously douse them with water and fertilizer, forcing the plants to grow nonstop. But we don’t want them to grow too tall, of course. By mowing down grass before it has the chance to produce flowers and seeds, we effectively trap the plants in perpetual sexual immaturity—although many are still able to reproduce asexually, cloning themselves and spreading laterally with creeping roots. Mowing also requires grass to devote a lot of energy and resources to healing itself by sealing off all wounds. The smell of freshly cut grass—so often comforting and nostalgic—is a chemical alarm call: a bouquet of fragrant volatile organic compounds that plants release when under attack. Ah, the cycle of lawn. Saturate, decapitate, repeat.

Since at least the 1960s—when Rachel Carson stressed the dangers of pesticides used on lawns in her book Silent Spring—brazen individuals and small groups of counterculture horticulturists in America and Europe have resisted or outright rejected the conventional grass lawn. 

More recently, in the birthplace of the grass lawn, a determined graduate student has created an entirely new kind of lawn—if we can still call it that. In the 1970s, when Lionel Smith was about 11 years old, a drought shriveled the garden in front of his home in Bedfordshire, England. Though the shrubs and grass browned, resilient weeds and wildflowers bloomed. He thought it was beautiful, but his father asked him to mow all the flowers down. Not wanting to forsake his pocket money, Smith capitulated. More than 20 years later, while earning an MA in horticulture at the University of Reading, Smith decided to try and make a viable lawn without a single blade of grass—a dense mesh of flowering, low-growing, broadleaf plants that would abide some mowing and walking.What began as a few experimental gardens with just four species—red clover, self-heal, daisies and yarrow—grew into many tightly woven swards with more than 65 native and non-native species each, and none of them grass. To choose these species, Smith perused data collected by researchers at Sheffield university about the types of plants that grow in British lawns, looking for soft-stemmed, laterally spreading plants in particular. He settled on violets, English daisies, small-leaved clovers, chamomile, thyme, yarrow, self-heal, lawn lobelias and cotula, among many others. Not only did these flowering plants provide complete ground coverage, they required one third less mowing than traditional lawns (three to nine times a year), in part because some of the plants adapted to regular mowing by curbing their upward growth. In the sward's early stages, mowing is essential to prevent taller species from dominating; once established, however, Smith finds that the swards need less and less mowing each year. And he doesn't water them; England's climate takes care of that.

Experimenting with alternatives to grass lawns does not require banishing turfgrass altogether, however. As Smith's research underscores, turfgrass has a useful property not easily matched by other plants: its impressive material resilience. Grass tolerates a lot of trampling without dying and will spring back when compressed by cleats and lounging people's backsides. Some scientists are currently focusing on how to make regions of private lawns and public green spaces more attractive to native pollinators, without uprooting a lawn altogether. Emily Dobbs of the University of Kentucky and her colleagues visit golf courses in the state and persuade the managers to transform some out of the way spots into wild habitat by planting a mix of perennial, native, low-maintenance wildflowers that bloom from April to October—coneflowers, columbines, black-eyed susans, clover, hyssop, and goldenrod, for example. The owners of five golf courses, including one belonging to Marriott Hotels and Resorts, have agreed so far—and the results are astounding.

"I can go out to any flower sites and see huge densities of bees, hundreds and hundreds of bees per small area," Dobbs says. "Usually on golf courses you see one or two species of bumblebees, some honeybees and some metallic sweat bees. On my plots we have seen two dozen species of solitary bees, sweat bees, miner bees and six different species of bumblebee. We’ve also seen quite a few butterflies." In general, native bees are far less aggressive than honeybees and only sting if antagonized, so they do not pose a threat to golfers. And, as beautiful as the expansive, undulating, immaculate grass lawns on a golf course can be, people don't mind some flowers here and there; in fact, they like them. The Marriott is so pleased that they plan to establish pollinator habitats in half of their golf courses in the Eastern U.S.

People can do something similar in their own backyards, explains retired biologist Beatriz Moisset of Pennsylvania, who has come up with a charming term for weeds and flowering plants woven into grass lawns. "A lawn can supply food for pollinators and even for birds," she writes. "A perfectly manicured lawn that looks like an indoor green carpet need not be the only ideal of lawn beauty. Instead, a lawn with some variety of plants which includes a few broad-leaved 'weeds' has its own kind of natural beauty; let us call them 'grass companions.'" Grass expert Mary Meyer of the University of Minnesota has another name for pollinator habitats: "bee lawns," which she defines as "a combination of traditional cool season lawn grasses and other low growing plants that support bees and native pollinators." Meyer recommends mingling fine fescues with plants from the mint family, bird's foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), thyme and the bulb plants squill and crocus. She is currently collaborating with her colleague, renowned entomologist Marla Spivak, on a project that echoes Lionel Smith's research: their goal is to identify low-growing flowering plants that will survive in people's lawns, endure some mowing and foot traffic and provide plenty of nectar and pollen for bees.