The rumbling drone of a bumblebee or the sight of a sweat bee landing on your picnic basket might send you scurrying back inside. But it really should make you smile — these tiny fliers are first responders in food security but are at risk of disappearing.

A 2017 University of Vermont study that mapped wild bees in the United States showed dramatic wild bee declines in some of the country’s largest swaths of farmland across the Great Plains and in the Central Valley of California. Another study, released in April 2019 by the University of New Hampshire, found 14 species of wild bees in the Northeast were in decline.

“We know that wild bees are greatly at risk and not doing well worldwide,” said Sandra Rehan, assistant professor of biological sciences at the University of New Hampshire.

But there’s one potential solution: Bee lawns. These untraditional lawns are not the pristine spreads of a single species of grass, with interlopers plucked out. Instead, they attract bees by giving them what they like. These lawns embrace a blend of wildflowers and even plants others consider weeds, such as clover and dandelions.

The Importance of Wild, Native Bees

Wild bees are different from the cultivated colonies of honeybees, which are a non-native type of bee kept in beehives and tended by beekeepers as commercial pollinators. There are about 4,000 species of native bees, and they do a better job of polliniating some plants and crops than the honey bees do.

Our food crops such as tree fruits, pumpkins, and other vegetables depend on wild bee pollinators. Wild bees, especially bumblebees, are important to blueberry pollination, using “buzz pollination” techniques to release pollen from the flowers. The development of farmland becomes a problem for some of the 3,600 known species of bee pollinators in the United States. Bee habitats — including grasslands, meadows, and woodlands — have been replaced with tilled farm furrows.

Graduate Research Assistant James Wolfin
Graduate Research Assistant James Wolfin with some of his friends. Photo credit: Spivak Bee Lab and Watkins Turfgrass Science Lab, University of Minnesota.

That loss of high-quality forage and habitat, as well as increased exposure to pests, diseases, and pesticides all contribute to the reduction in wild bee numbers, explains James Wolfin, a graduate research assistant at Spivak Bee Lab, University of Minnesota. “A recent study in Illinois found that, over a 120 year period up to 2010, half of the wild bee species in the state went extinct.”

Bee Lawns: Bee a Part of the Solution

Bee lawns, or flowering lawns, can help the wild bee population by providing a food meadow of sorts for different species of bees. That bumblebee and honeybee that you are familiar with are just two members of a very large bee family. Sweat bees, carpenter bees, mason bees, leafcutter bees, and many other species are important to pollination, too.

Some bees are generalists, that pollinate a variety of plants. Others are specialists, pollinating a small number of plant species,” says Wolfin. Turf lawns normally function as a grass monoculture. In such lawns, flowering plants such as the dandelion or clover are often viewed as a nuisance. But flowers within bee lawns have been shown to support at least 66 species of bees, including 55 bee species on Dutch white clover alone.

Rusty patch bumblebee
Bombus affinis, better known as the rusty patch bumblebee, is one of the species that has disappeared from some habitats. Credit: USGS

Bee lawns add diversity to the property’s landscape and as a result, they need less maintenance. Reducing the need for irrigation, fertilizer and mowing can save homeowners and land managers money. Turfgrass blended with low-growing perennials that bloom after mowing are a foraging delight to local bee populations.

The concept is catching on. In Minnesota, for example, state lawmakers have approved $900,000 to help homeowers cover the costs of planting bee lawns. The program is currently under design, with the first lawns expected to be funded in 2020.

“New research shows that cities can play a key role in pollinator preservation,” the legislation’s chief sponsor, Rep. Kelly Morrison said in a news release. “We need to protect our environment and abundant wildlife with science-based solutions so they can be enjoyed by future generations.”

How to Create a Bee Lawn

The overall goal of a bee lawn: Instead of using one type of grass, seed a number of different grasses and low-growing perennials that bloom at different times of the year. Many wild bees such as the bumblebee nest in the ground and are drawn to undisturbed areas with loose, unmulched soil. Honeybees and other early-spring pollinators begin to search for a food source when temperatures reach around 50 degrees, so cool weather bloomers such as dandelions are tempting.

Native plants and more-diverse landscapes can also contribute to a healthy bee population. Aerate and overseed lawn areas with bee-friendly fescues, clovers, creeping thyme, or self heal. “Use fine fescue grasses which require less water, fertilizer, and mowing than conventional Kentucky bluegrass lawns,” says Wolfin. Use organic lawn care techniques and stay away from chemical fertilizers and weed killers — remember, natural growth is best.

Let the grass grow to 4 inches or more to encourage blooming. When you do mow, cut back to 3 inches instead of mowing short. This prevents moisture evaporation and encourages healthy growth.

If you find it difficult to walk in the taller grass, mow paths in higher traffic areas, or leave taller areas of grass mixtures at the edge of your manicured lawn areas.

Include wetlands or watering areas for bee pollinators to encourage them to visit your bee lawn. For example, fill simple terra cotta saucers with river stones and clean water. Make sure the stones rise above the water level – bees can easily fall in and drown in deep water.

James Wolfin works on the university's bee lawn. Photo credit: Spivak Bee Lab and Watkins Turfgrass Science Lab, University of Minnesota.
James Wolfin works on the university’s bee lawn. Photo credit: Spivak Bee Lab and Watkins Turfgrass Science Lab, University of Minnesota.

Bee Friendliness Around Your Yard

If you aren’t ready to give up your entire well-manicured lawn to the bee population, then turn lightly used areas into smaller pollinator habitats. Sloping areas, easements, and even spaces between patio or stepping stones can be seeded with low-growing bloomers such as creeping thyme, clover, or sweet alyssum.

  • Incorporate border gardens that include woody plants, vegetables, and a variety of short and tall flowering plants.
  • Choose flowers with different bloom times so the bee snack bar is open as long as possible. Clusters of blue, purple, orange and yellow flowers draw the most bees. Attract bees by planting clumps of flowers in these colors.
  • Plant in large batches of a single flower instead of one or two plants of many varieties — once they find a flower type they like, bees and other pollinators like to harvest from multiple blooms.

Soon, the rumble of a bumble will be music to your ears, knowing that you are supporting the health of an important part of our ecosystem.

Bee-Friendly Plants by Region
To find plants that attract wild bees and other pollinators, and thrive in your region, see the lists below.
ArizonaMassachusetts
CaliforniaMinnesota
FloridaNevada/Utah mountains
GeorgiaNew York
IllinoisOhio
LouisianaOklahoma
MarylandTexas
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