In North Asheville, just beyond the border of Montford, Pamela Cauble’s backyard is a regular oasis. Long grass forms a latticework of paths between pods of flowers. There’s a bench for sitting, trees for shade and plenty of pollinators buzzing around. A dry-erase board clipped to her fence encourages neighbors to “wait to mow” and “feed the pollinators.”
Years ago, Cauble, like many, mowed her lawn every week. One day, looking down at the wildflowers dotting the grass — clover, dandelion and violets — that she was about to cut away, she thought to herself, “This doesn’t feel right. This doesn’t make sense.”
But it wasn’t until attending Asheville’s Pollination Celebration — an annual, weeklong event — that she understood the importance of pollinators and their plight. That knowledge “just turned my world upside down,” she explains.
The statistics can be startling. A 2016 study commissioned by the United Nations found that 40% of the world’s invertebrate pollinators, including bees and butterflies, and 16% of vertebrate pollinators such as birds and bats are at risk of extinction. Use of pesticides and herbicides, unearthing native habitat to make way for new development, and the proliferation of lawns and a cultural obsession with maintaining them have all contributed to the loss of flowering weeds and native wildflowers — vital food sources for pollinators.
Almost 90% of flowering plants and 75% of the world’s crops depend on pollination to reproduce. The extinction of pollinators would mean a severe loss of plant and food diversity. Apples, blueberries, almonds, lemons, limes, coffee and chocolate are just some of the foods that would cease to exist without pollinators.
While alarming, members of local bee groups say pollinator survival is not beyond hope and there are simple things anyone can do to help.
No Mow May
After attending the Pollination Celebration, Cauble connected with the local Bee City USA chapter. “These are my people!” she said when they first met. She’d long been an avid gardener and “just loved to dig in the dirt,” but the group proved her passion also could be helpful to pollinators. It turned out her instinct about the wildflowers blooming in her yard had been right — mowing them down really didn’t make sense.
Now, Cauble participates regularly in No Mow May, a program designed to help reintegrate native wildflowers and plants into yards to help feed bees, birds, butterflies and other pollinators. The initiative began in the United Kingdom and has since spread to the U.S. with the help of Bee City USA. The campaign encourages people not to mow their lawns during May and throughout the early spring when bees and other pollinators are emerging from hibernation and looking for food. While grasses don’t offer nutritional value to pollinators, the wildflowers and flowering weeds that come up when untreated lawns are left alone provide valuable nectar and pollen.
“At the beginning of spring, seasoned pollinators don’t have a food source for the first couple of weeks. A lot of bees die coming out of hibernation for lack of food,” explains Jay Pryor, operations manager at Asheville Bee Charmer. “So, if you start by not mowing in May and then keep a healthy lawn throughout the summer and into winter, you provide that food source.”
Even after No Mow May, Pryor recommends keeping mowing to a minimum — about once every four weeks to encourage wildflowers to grow and establish strong enough root systems where, even when they are eventually cut down, they will come back up. If mowing so infrequently isn’t feasible or desirable, Pryor says just keeping a small patch of unmowed grass where wildflowers can grow can be beneficial to pollinators.
Several research studies have documented that mowing lawns less frequently can increase the abundance and diversity of pollinators. Pryor, Cauble and other bee experts Xpress spoke to all recommend looking around your backyard to see which pollinators are showing up to gauge whether the measures have been effective and just for the joy of it.
As for what to say to neighbors and other naysayers who might frown upon long lawns, Pryor recommends keeping it simple: “It’s not that I’m not mowing my lawn at all, just not as often. I’m helping the bees.”
Keep it legal
Pryor’s advice will work just as well for Asheville’s Sanitation Division, which is responsible for enforcing the city’s lawn maintenance ordinance. The law prohibits the accumulation of grass, trash and other objects that “become a nuisance or menace to the health and welfare of the citizens who live adjacent or near” the property. Lawns that are “a breeding place for flies, mosquitoes, rats or any other rodents,” a fire hazard or that otherwise endanger lives are subject to fines of $100 per day up to $5,000.
Brad Branham, Asheville city attorney, says, “This particular ordinance would only apply if the situation becomes a legal nuisance which threatens the health and welfare of the community. As you might imagine, that would only encompass the more extreme cases.”
Jes Foster, Sanitation Division manager for Asheville Public Works, reports that since January 2022, the city has received 93 complaints for “tall grass and overgrown lots.” As of April 11 this year, only four remained open, one of which received a fine. Foster says the majority of complaints are resolved quickly either before the city goes out to inspect the yard or after a warning is issued.
She adds that the department occasionally receives complaints for yards and, upon inspection, finds that they are pollinator gardens or wildflower areas. “Generally, our code enforcement staff can identify a noticeable visual difference between a natural garden and an overgrown lot,” she tells Xpress. “If the natural area in question is not contributing to a sanitation issue or impacting the health and welfare of the community, such as harboring rodents or mosquitoes, then it is not considered a violation.”
Local bee groups agree that No Mow May and other programs designed to encourage pollinator habitats don’t mean neglect or allowing your yard to become overgrown. Phyllis Stiles, founder of Bee City USA and board member of Asheville GreenWorks, explains, “If you were to let your yard grow up, I am pretty confident that you would end up with a ton of invasives … so we never advise anybody to just let it grow up and see what happens. We want more control than that.”
While not mowing during May or reducing frequency in early spring can be beneficial to pollinators, Stiles says minimizing lawns and replacing them with native plants and wildflowers is ideal.
“Anytime you reduce lawn and you increase natural areas everywhere you possibly can, you’re supporting pollinators,” Stiles tells Xpress. She explains that about 25% of bees are considered “specialists,” meaning they will eat pollen only from one type of species, genus or family of genera, making plant diversity important. Locally, there are bees that will feed only on violets, which are native to the area and tend to emerge among patches of unmowed and untreated grass. Southeastern blueberry, passionflower and goldenrod are examples of other blooms that attract specialist bees.
For anyone looking to reduce their lawns and increase pollinator habitats, Asheville GreenWorks offers a helpful list of native, pollinator-friendly plants and a program for yards, gardens and even porch pots that meet certain criteria to become a “certified pollinator habitat.”
Bees in your backyard
Across town in Oakley, Virginia Currie, a volunteer with Greenworks’ Bee City USA Asheville Leadership Committee, tends one such certified pollinator habitat. Her yard in mid-April was buzzing with bees as they flicked among plants — nettle, ragwort, coral honeysuckle, clumps of clover, dandelions, golden Alexander, fleabane, and a serviceberry tree at the center. Currie says she’s adapted her own version of No Mow May — mowing around patches of wildflowers and flowering weeds.
“Your yard can still be manicured and helpful to bees,” says Currie, who was inspired to build a supportive backyard habitat because of how vital pollinators are to plants and food diversity. “Wild animals and insects are not like humans; they can’t go to the grocery store,” she explained. “We can have an impact by helping them to get food early in the season when it’s crucial. Sometimes weeds are the only food source available.”
Currie and others stress how simple it can be to make a difference. “You don’t have to be a beekeeper to help the bees, to help the pollinators,” says Pryor of Asheville Bee Charmer. “You can do it from your garden, you can do it simply by leaving some grass unmowed.”