by Jessica Butters | Mar 2, 2023
A honey bee visits a clover flower.
The idea of creating a pollinator-friendly yard is finally taking root, and the notion of a perfect lawn, along with its expense, is being weeded out. Clover lawns are one of the latest trends yard owners are trying out in an effort to be more environmentally conscious. This new kind of lawn is often touted to support pollinators, require less up-keep, and lower pollution. But do they live up to the hype?
What is a clover lawn?
What constitutes a “clover lawn” has several renditions. The simplest form of a clover lawn is a lawn in which someone passively allowed clover to establish and grow. They stopped spraying herbicides, mowed less, and allowed grass to die in areas, giving way to clover and other plants. A second kind of clover lawn is one in which clover was actively seeded into the lawn, over the existing turf (this was a common practice until the 1950s). A third way of creating a clover lawn is to kill and remove all turf and replace it entirely with clover, resulting in a uniform lawn.
Common clovers used for lawns are nonnative, including white (Dutch) clover (Trifolium repens) and strawberry clover (Trifolium fragiferum), both hailing from Eurasia. Strawberry clover is also the species included in the Scotts®Turf Builder® Clover Lawn seed. The idea of seeding mini or micro clovers is increasingly popular. These clovers are normally short-statured cultivars of the species listed above. Micro clover lawns are supposed to require even less maintenance and have smaller flowers that attract fewer bees. There are no readily-available native clovers that are marketed for clover lawns (though there are some fantastic native clovers in Iowa).
A hairstreak butterfly on a dandelion.
Why would you want a clover lawn?
Those interested in clover lawns will have different objectives. Some are drawn to the fact that most clovers require less care than turf grasses (though they still require regular maintenance). Clovers usually need less mowing, resist weeds, many are drought- and shade-tolerant, and they also fix nitrogen in the soil, eliminating the need for fertilizer. These attributes are also welcomed by those looking to reduce carbon emissions and pollution by requiring less mowing, herbicides, and fertilizers. Lastly, wildlife lovers hope to support pollinators with clover due to the fact that their flowers can attract honey bees and some native bees. However, keep in mind that these positive attributes are good only in comparison to a traditional turf-grass lawn, which provides scant (if any) environmental benefits and requires a lot of maintenance. Additionally, clover does not stand up to heavy foot traffic as well as grasses, and may need to be reseeded every two or three years.
A lucky four-leaf clover.
A native bee visiting nonnative clover.
Do clover lawns benefit pollinators?
Simply put, some clover lawns can provide benefits to some pollinators. If you really want a clover lawn, the best method for wildlife (and your wallet) is to passively allow clover to enter your lawn. This practice requires you to mow less and stop using herbicides, which will keep pollinators in your area healthier.
While there are some benefits to having a clover lawn, they are small from a broader point of view. At the end of the day, adding clover to your lawn adds a few species of nonnative plants in your area, which often provide sub-optimal nutrition to native pollinators. Keep in mind that many pollinators are specialists and will not visit nonnative clover. Additionally, it may be difficult to keep the clover on your own lawn, and out of natural habitats. In contrast, planting a pollinator garden, even a small one, adds multiple native flower species and provides high-quality habitat to native pollinators. Planting within a garden also doesn’t require you to rethink your entire lawn. Finally, a garden is a stronger challenge to the status quo, as planting a diverse and beautiful garden is a lot harder to be annoyed about than nonnative dandelions and clover in your front yard. It is better PR for pollinator habitat: a neighbor with a more traditional mindset for a lawn will not appreciate the spread of “weeds”, but may be open to the idea of creating their own native plant garden.
Are clover lawns worth it?
In my personal opinion, ideas such as clover lawns challenge the current lawn standard, but are not the end goal. They also do not entirely live up to the hype: they still require maintenance, and are not the seed-and-forget or “let it go” solution that many were hoping for. From this point of view, you might as well grow native plants.
From an environmental standpoint, we need more native habitat and less lawn, whether it’s traditional or clover. It would be a more effective and meaningful trend to encourage people to grow “micro gardens” for pollinators instead of praising micro clovers and other nonnative lawn alternatives. To make the biggest impact in your corner of the world, ending pesticide use and planting a native plant garden (even a tiny one!) is best. However, if that kind of project is not possible for you at the moment, ending all pesticide use and choosing to mow less often is definitely “better than nothing”. Doing so will probably invite clover into your lawn, which will suffice until you can start a small garden. The clover trend is not lucky for all pollinators, but a garden that includes native clovers could be!
A sweat bee visiting a native clover.
by Jessica Butters | Nov 22, 2022
Insects are conspicuous by their absence during Iowa’s winter months. Absent are the beauty of butterflies, and we would be shocked to hear a bee buzzing around our snowy apartment balcony on Christmas Eve. So where did they all go? Did they perish from freezing temperatures? Have they all migrated south with the eastern monarch butterflies?
Here in Iowa, we have many insects that use truly astonishing techniques to stay here throughout the winter, braving the cold with the rest of us. From smart hiding places and suspended animation to making their own antifreeze, Iowa’s insects have developed some pretty wild adaptations to weather the winter!
Note: Iowa has many insects that undergo “suspended animation”, technically called diapause, to survive winter. Diapause is an insect form of hibernation where the insect pauses development; it stops maturing and halts all activity. It remains in its’ current life stage (which could be egg, larva, nymph, pupa, or adult) until conditions become favorable again and they can continue growing or start mating/laying eggs.
Wooly bear caterpillars: These fuzzy little guys will mature to become the Isabella tiger moth. They stare winter down by allowing themselves to freeze, but on their own terms! They seek shelter under logs and leaf layers. Once safe, they go into diapause and slow down the freezing process by creating glycerol, a natural alcohol and one of the many insect forms of “antifreeze”. They slowly allow their entire bodies to freeze except the insides of their cells.
Black swallowtail butterflies: These beauties stay cozy in their chrysalis while the snowflakes fall, entering diapause at the pupal stage. Their chrysalis mimics a dead leaf to keep them safe from predators, so be careful when cleaning up your lawn – especially if you grew dill, parsley, or other plants related to carrots in your garden! If you must move leaves, try not to chop/mow them to ensure you can enjoy the swallowtails next summer!
Dragonflies: Dragonflies brave the winter in a few different ways depending on the species. Some overwinter as eggs laid in logs near ponds, and others actually migrate. But one of the coolest ways some overwinter is as underwater nymphs (an immature stage of a dragonfly)! The dragonfly nymphs stay underwater beneath insulating ice layers, where they are voracious predators true to their namesake (even eating small fish!). They eat and grow throughout the winter until they can emerge as adults in the summer.
Flower flies: Also known as syrphid flies or hover flies, flower flies are a family of flies (called “Syrphidae”) that are fantastic garden helpers: when young they eat aphids, and as adults they pollinate. Here in Iowa, they’re commonly referred to as “sweat bees” due to their black and yellow stripes and the fact that they sometimes land on sweaty humans (sweat contains good nutrients for them). However, these flies only mimic bees, and cannot sting or bite (their mouth basically consists of a tiny mop). They survive the cold much like other insects; they find shelter in leaf layers and other plant material, enter diapause and overwinter as a larva, pupa, or adult depending on the species. Flower flies are no pansies!
Bumble bee queens: Bumble bee hives only live for one year, unlike honey bees. Near the end of the hive’s life, new queens and male bees (“drones”) hatch and leave the hive to mate. When hive activity finally ends, the drones die while the newly-mated queens search for a warm winter home alone. Their new homes could be in leaf layers, warm compost piles, or just a few inches underground in a sheltered place! While winter winds howl, the entire fate of next year’s bumble bee hives rests on these young queens surviving the winter all alone. When it warms again, if all goes well, they will wake from diapause and emerge to start their very own hives to begin the cycle again.
How Can You Help?
As you can see from these few examples, surviving winter is key to us enjoying pollinators and other insects next year. So many insects rely on the shelter of leaves, logs, and other materials to block the cold wind and insulate them from freezing temperatures. Therefore, one of the best ways to help pollinators this winter, and to ensure there are pollinators this summer, is to find a place in your yard or balcony where you can let leaf litter and plant material accumulate. Think of it as a Cozy Corner that may harbor young bumble bee queens, sleeping swallowtails, and fuzzy wooly bear caterpillars. Give insects the gift of cozy this holiday season!
See below for more information on how to build your very own Cozy Corner:
Create a “Cozy Corner”
You can create a “cozy corner”, or brush pile, for pollinators throughout the fall and winter by choosing a location to leave leaf litter undisturbed. You can add twigs, branches, and other brush to the pile as you clean up the other areas you want clear of brush. You can also leave potted plants on your balcony or patio and push them together to create a small shelter; I’ve found moths sheltering in my flowerpots in mid-fall, and I’ve noticed more bird visitors! Add layers of brush to your cozy corner to provide the best shelter possible. Click here to read the full article from which this paragraph was based on.
How-To Guides to Create Your Very Own Cozy Corner:
- General Wildlife Brush pile: Article by the Wisconsin DNR
by Mike Kellner | Nov 3, 2022
How can homeowners in Ames be encouraged to increase pollinator-friendly practices in their yards? That was the question addressed by former Prairie Rivers of Iowa Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway Coordinator Shellie Orngard in a recently completed pilot project using Community Based Social Marketing strategies. Now that the pilot is completed, the project will move forward in 2023 to explore ways to apply what was learned to increase pollinator habitat along Iowa’s Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway.
Community Based Social Marketing was developed by Canadian psychology professor Doug McKenzie-Moher, author of Fostering Sustainable Behavior. It is used in developing and implementing community programs that make use of scientific knowledge of human behavior in effecting change. Community programs such as composting and conserving water and energy have used it to increase participation.
According to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, 70 to 80 percent of Iowa was once covered by prairie, producing rich agricultural soil and a lush environment for pollinators. Now, with 90 percent of Iowa’s land in agricultural production, less than one percent of Iowa’s prairie remains, simultaneously reducing pollinator habitat. “Doing this project I learned strategies to encourage pollinator-friendly practices that can be employed along Iowa’s byways,” says Orngard. “We are now exploring applying these strategies to make the Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway a pollinator-friendly byway from the Mississippi to the Missouri Rivers. Some of Iowa’s other 13 byways have also expressed interest.”
While a number of groups (including Prairie Rivers) have focused on encouraging farmers, other large landowners, and local governments to improve pollinator habitat, this project will also include urban areas, businesses, and homeowners.
An initial survey was conducted to determine the perceived barriers and benefits of creating a pollinator garden. The results show that homeowners can face some big barriers such as knowing what types of plants to grow that provide diverse and useful habitat during all seasons. Additionally, by implementing pollinator-friendly practices, homeowners may, in some cases, go against societal norms of having a yard consisting primarily of well-groomed turf.
This project focused on strategies to encourage a paradigm shift in what landowners consider desirable, resulting in such practices as reducing pesticide and herbicide use, letting grass grow longer before mowing, and leaving leaves for overwintering insects.
To encourage year-round pollinator-friendly practices, Orngard worked with Xerces Society Farm Bill Pollinator Conservation Planner/NRCS Partner Biologist Sarah Nizzi to create The Pollinator Friendly Yard: A Seasonal Guide informational flyer. Homeowners were asked to commit to increasing their pollinator-friendly practices according to their comfort level.
As a final strategy, Orngard worked with local artist Naomi Friend to create a charming yard sign homeowners can use to educate passersby about why some leaves are being left to provide habitat for overwintering insects.
Pollinator-friendly yard signs are available by contacting our office.
Shellie Orngard also contributed to the content of this article.
by Jessica Butters | Oct 29, 2022
We’re dipping into the season of gratitude. Although it’s definitely cliché, I feel like many of us who sniffed at the idea of owning a gratitude journal have inevitably found ourselves thankful for small, everyday things more often than we did a few years ago. The truth is, the sum of many small things makes a big difference, and this rings true for the natural world as well.
The graphic above depicts some typical Thanksgiving Day food that either depends upon or may benefit from animal pollination, as well as pest control from wasps, birds, and bats. It is not an exhaustive list!
Who runs the world? Bugs!
E. O. Wilson said it best: insects are the “little things that run the world”, and that includes pollinators. Pollinators are not only key to the survival of about 87% of Earth’s flowering plant species; they are also a major food source for many animals, and around 35% of our world’s food crops depend upon them. The food we cook for a Thanksgiving meal, and many of our other meals, comes from all over the world. It is consequently imperative to appreciate and protect the biodiversity of the entire planet.
We rely on squash bees in our gardens to pollinate our pumpkins, and tropical flies and beetles to pollinate coffee and spice plants such as nutmeg, anise, and cardamom. If you hunt for a wild turkey this fall, know that about 10% of its diet was comprised of insects (and it required even more when it was a poult). And while not all of our food or cultivars require animal pollination, we clearly need all kinds of insects to run the world, from South American flies we will probably never notice or see, to the monarchs that bless our backyard gardens in summer.
A Value of Their Own
Pollinators, and all wildlife for that matter, have intrinsic value, and should not be valued purely based on the goods and services they provide for humans. Pollinators and other wildlife have played key roles in nature and agriculture long before we realized it, and will continue to do so after we forget about them (but let’s try not to forget). The purpose of this article is to bring to light just how dependent we really are on all “the little things”. Whether we choose to value pollinators, insects, and nature in general or not, we are sustained by the air, plants, and diverse food groups they support. So at your next Thanksgiving meal, give a mulled wine toast to the little things!
Sources for percentages:
- Ollerton J, Winfree R, and Tarrant S (2011) How many flowering plants are pollinated by animals?
Klein A.-M., Vaissière B. E., Cane J. H., Steffan-Dewenter I., Cunningham S. A., Kremen C., & Tscharntke, T (2007) Importance of pollinators in changing landscapes for world crops.
- Brigida D, Mizejewski D (2021) NWF Blog: 6 Tips for Feeding Wild Turkeys with Your Garden.
Pollinators/beneficial insects listed in the Thanksgiving food graphic were informed in part by the Pollinator Partnership.
by Mike Kellner | Jul 28, 2022
This article was produced in conjunction with the Iowa Environmental Council
The natural beauty of Iowa is a gift to behold. We have a picturesque landscape like no other. We have incredible soils. We’ve had a stable climate. We’ve had diverse flora and fauna in the tallgrass prairie. The Iowa of today may look different than it did 200 years ago, but our state remains a beauteous marvel that deserves to be celebrated.
Too often in Iowa, we’ve put productivity ahead of beauty. We’ve put efficiency ahead of diversity. On August 3 nearly 30 environmental organizations across the state, including Prairie Rivers of Iowa and the Iowa Environmental Council will participate in Iowa Gives Green, a day of giving that shows Iowans’ commitment to our environmental promise.
Prairie Rivers of Iowa board member and founder Erv Klaas working with youth to teach water quality monitoring as part of our efforts to address water quality issues in the state.
This environmentally-focused day of giving empowers diverse groups to work together to support conservation, preservation, and recreation, and to engage Iowans on the same day with intentional action to support those efforts.
Gifts to Prairie Rivers Iowa and other organizations participating in Iowa Gives Green clean and protect Iowa’s waterways. During Iowa Gives Green and throughout the month of August a gift to Prairie Rivers will have twice the impact due to a matching gift by one of its founders and well-known and respected champion for the environment ISU Professor Emeritus of Animal Ecology Erv Klaas.
Ag leadership has been touting the same ‘solutions’ for Iowa water quality, without results to show for it. Our environmental and conservation groups have ideas to bring to the table. Your support will help these groups implement new ideas and practices to deliver real results.
- protect and invest in habitat and landscapes. Iowa is one of the most changed landscapes on the planet. By supporting the efforts of groups that are preserving and rebuilding ecosystems through land management and conservancy helps, you can help to build rural economies and critical pollinator and wildlife habitat.
- provide recreation and education opportunities. Iowa offers incredible recreation opportunities, but our state ranks one of the lowest in the nation for public land. Your support can help these organizations to expand and improve our recreational spaces.
- take action on climate. Extreme weather events in Iowa are no longer the exception, they are the norm — hotter summers, intense but erratic rain events, or the December 2021 tornadoes. We need to address climate change together, now. With your support, organizations across Iowa can implement their plans and help you to get involved.
- Grow clean sources of energy. Our state is a wind energy leader and solar power is poised to grow exponentially. These groups seek to improve the landscape for clean energy development, so our state can transition to true, 100% clean energy 24/7.
- Address environmental injustices in Iowa. Right here at home, the majority burden of pollution from fossil fuels damages the health and well-being of lower-income and minority communities. Drinking water across the state is threatened by polluting chemicals, lead pipes, and aging infrastructure. Rural Iowans struggle to gain access to transportation improvements, recycling initiatives, and other environmental efforts. All Iowans stand to benefit when we address historical injustices.
Iowa Gives Green helps to create an environmental movement that makes access to Iowa’s natural beauty available to all Iowans regardless of their economic status or the communities where they live. Join us in celebrating and supporting Iowa’s environment on August 3 for Iowa Gives Green by coming together to show how much Iowans truly care about our environment at www.iowagivesgreen.org.