Karl Foord, Extension Educator - Horticulture
One of the projects I am engaged in this summer is the identification and location of the nests of native bees. My partner in this effort is Heather Holm, who is the author of a recently published book entitled, "Pollinators of Native Plants". With additional help from Joel Gardner, a bee biologist and graduate student at the University of Minnesota, and Colleen Satyshur, the research coordinator at the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve, we have been able to identify a half dozen different nesting sites of ground nesting native bees. These sites have included areas on: 1) the University of Minnesota campus (Photos 1 & 2), 2) the front of an apartment complex on Como Avenue in St. Paul (Photos 3, 4 & 5) , 3) Purgatory Park, Minnetonka (Photo 6 & 7), 4) a pick-your-own blueberry farm in Champlin Minnesota (Photo 8 & 9), 5) a pick-your-own blueberry farm in Maiden Rock, Wisconsin, and 6) a residence in Chaska.
These sites had several features in common. There was a degree of exposed soil and the areas were mostly untended e.g. ignored or left alone. The fact that these areas are undisturbed by human activity is a critical feature. However, this also means that the areas might not meet the standards of tidiness and neatness often embraced by most urban and suburban neighborhoods.
My upbringing left me with the impression that areas with exposed dirt and perhaps a few weeds were the sign of a slovenly, lazy person. One who did not care enough about their own property to maintain the unspoken but expected standard of tidiness. One key aspect of this standard seems to be a weedless dark green lawn.
The lawn is an English invention indicating aristocratic status. In essence a demonstration that the owner could afford to keep land not being used for buildings or food production.
Wealthy families in America began mimicking such English landscaping styles in the late 1700's. The first lawnmowers were invented in the 1830s in England. The subsequent improvement of these machines permitted middle-class families to imitate aristocratic landscapes and grow finely trimmed lawns in their back gardens.
Jump to the 20th century and behold the increased value of a home through landscaping and its most prominant feature - the well manicured lawn. Maintaining such a lawn may require fertilizers, pesticides, and gasoline powered mowing and maintence equipment as well as water, depending on location.
The University of Minnesota Turf program is searching for ways to reduce the environmental impact of lawns through drought-tolerant, slower growing species as just one of their approaches.
It was the interest in native bees and their nesting sites that has had me reconsider the negative associations associated with some open ground and untidy areas. I now consider such areas to be an important and purposeful part of my landscape, as it provides nesting sites for native bees.
For what used to be an eyesore, is now a place of beauty when occupied by our fascinating native pollinators.
Perhaps it is time to reconsider lawns in terms of their benefits and ecological impacts.