Dear Sustainability Sam,
The snow is gone, and my yard has dried out, so I’m eager to clean up the lawn and garden beds. However, recently I’ve heard that I should wait because otherwise I will harm bees and other pollinators. What is this all about?
Perfect timing for your question. It’s April and things will be turning green soon, so we all want to run out and start working on our yards. Unfortunately, it takes longer for our pollinator friends to wake up from their winter slumber. Leaf litter, and hollow plant stems make perfect homes for all kinds of bees and insects to survive our cold months. They overwinter as adults, larvae and even eggs. This means if you clean up your yard too early in the spring, you will be disturbing or destroying many pollinators before they can leave their winter homes.
Why is there so much attention paid to pollinators these days? It turns out that pollinators are essential for a healthy environment, not to mention the agriculture industry, and this group includes not just bees, but wasps, butterflies, moths, even flies and beetles. Lately, studies have shown that pollinator populations have declined due to habitat loss, pesticides, diseases and the changing climate. Luckily, there are some fairly easy things we can do to, such as being careful with spring cleanup.
When is it safe to clean up? That is a good question without a good answer. As the temperature reaches into the 50os you will start to see some insects appearing, but they will do so gradually, and on their own schedule. Some insects overwintered in an area that gets full sun, or can handle colder temperatures than other insects, and these are the ones you will see first. There is a great article by the Xerxes Society that tries to answer the question on timing linked here.
They ask these five questions:
Have I put away the snow shovel, mittens, and winter coats?
Have I paid my taxes?
Would I plant tomatoes now?
Is it time to mow?
Are apples and pear trees finished blooming?
Try to be patient and wait as long as you can before cleaning up your yard. When you can’t wait any longer, start by cutting back stems. For hollow or pithy stems if you leave 12-15 inches of the stem standing, bees will use those as nests to lay eggs in. And as you cut down the stems, think about leaving them on the ground to let any remaining insects escape. If you don’t like the look, then just gather up the stems and put them in a corner of your yard where it won’t bother you. Same with leaf litter. It is best to leave it on the plant beds, but if it needs to be removed, try to put at least some in a corner where they can just sit and decompose, while the insects emerge at their leisure.
I hope this helps. The bottom line is that being lazy and slow to clean up your yard in the spring is a big help for pollinator survival. Plus, you can also think about adding some native plants to your landscape to further help. More on this topic soon, as we are very excited to announce that Tangletown, along with Kingfield and Lyndale have received a joint Lawn to Legumes grant to expand native plantings throughout our neighborhoods. Stay tuned for updates and opportunities!