By Kristine Moncada, University of Minnesota
The Low Input Turf project is not the only fine fescue work we do at the University of Minnesota. Our team does other research that includes: fine fescues in roadside mixes, fine fescue sod, fine fescues in golf course roughs and fine fescue seed production. Yet another project that involves fine fescues is bee lawns. This is one of my favorite projects so in this blog post, I will introduce bee lawns and how fine fescues fit in with them.
What is a bee lawn?
Some might think a bee lawn is just turfgrass with weeds. What differentiates a bee lawn from a weedy lawn is that the non-turf species are specifically chosen for flowers with pollen and/or nectar that are attractive to pollinators (Figure 1). We usually call them bee lawns because that’s a catchy name, but a better term might be a pollinator lawn because they can attract other pollinating species in addition to bees, such as butterflies, moths, wasps, beetles and flies. Ideally, the turfgrasses and forbs (flowering dicot plants) of a bee lawn are compatible with each other in growth habit, height, competitiveness and aesthetics.
Flowering plants for bee lawns
A classic example of a bee lawn plant is white clover (Trifolium repens). This legume is not a native species, but has been in the U.S. for hundreds of years and has become naturalized (Figure 2). In fact, many years ago, white clover seed was commonly included along with turfgrasses in lawn seed mixtures. Its growth habit is low-growing and stoloniferous (growing via stolons, which are above-ground stems) so it adapts very well to a regularly mowed lawn environment, as turf managers who have struggled to get rid of it know! As a legume that fixes nitrogen, white clover has the added advantage of doing well in low-input conditions. A former graduate student that worked with our group, James Wolfin, studied white clover and other bee lawn forbs in his thesis research. He found that white clover in a lawn can attract many different bee species and if self heal (Prunella vulgaris) and creeping thyme (Thymus sepryllum) are added in addition to white clover, an even greater diversity of bee species will be found.
Fine fescues for bee lawns
I’ve discussed a few examples of forbs that work in a bee lawn. What kind of cool season turfgrasses work well? Research by Ian Lane, another former graduate student from our team who is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Cariveau lab at UMN, found that hard fescue and Kentucky bluegrass are good companion turfgrasses for a flowering species (Lane, Watkins & Spivak, 2019). As work continued on bee lawns, our group focused on using the fine fescues as they have lower fertility needs, which can help in the persistence of a legume species such as white clover. Under the right conditions, fine fescues grow more slowly and need less mowing, providing the opportunity for the forbs in a bee lawn to produce more flowers for pollinators.
From our collaboration with Dr. Marla Spivak and the University of Minnesota’s Bee Lab, we have found that Minnesotans have great interest in bee lawns. Future work that our group will do on bee lawns will be studying the long-term effects of these lawns on pollinator populations and communities. We, along with Turfgrass Extension educator Maggie Reiter, will be developing additional educational materials on bee lawns and how to establish them for the University of Minnesota Extension website. If you are interested in learning more about the University of Minnesota’s work in bee lawns, the Bee Lab has resources that include Bee Lawns: Turfgrass with Flowering Plants and Flowering Bee Lawns: A Toolkit for Land Managers. Another organization in Minnesota, The Lawns to Legumes program, has become a national model for helping our state's residents turn their yards into pollinator-friendly habitat that includes bee lawns.
Lane, I., E. Watkins, and M. Spivak. 2019. Turfgrass species affect the establishment and bloom of kura clover (Trifolium ambiguum) in lawns. HortScience 54:824.