Anyone can build a tiny habitat amidst the sea of green that is our lawns. Whether it’s a strip of right-of-way outside your urban apartment, your manicured suburban lawn or many mowed acres surrounding your house in the countryside, we’ve all got a little sod we could consider giving back to nature. Researchers have been learning more and more about declines in native pollinators, all while finding out the ways mowed, watered, fertilized and herbicided lawns can negatively affect the environment. That’s why University of Central Florida entomologist Barbara Sharanowski teamed up with ecologist Nash Turley to create the Lawn to Wildflowers program. They’ve developed an app to coach users on how to turn any patch of lawn into native wildflower habitat; it will also collect valuable data. Discover spoke with Sharanowski about the new project, which launched in May 2020.
Q: Some people might shrink at the thought of more bugs in their yard. What do you wish people knew about them?
BS: I’m an entomologist, and I love bugs. I think everybody should love bugs. Anyone can go out into their backyard and look at plants and see the interactions that they have with beneficial insects. Not all insects are something that you want to kill or you need to manage. Most of them are just doing their thing, and many are even helping us out, either controlling pests naturally, or pollinating our flowers and crops. So, I want people to go look at them, and be excited about bugs rather than afraid of them.
Q: We know that bees are in trouble. How will Lawn to Wildflowers help?
BS: Even though a lot of people talk about honeybees and colony collapse disorder, that’s a non-native, managed species in the U.S. What we really want to promote are native plants that improve biodiversity and abundance of native pollinators, of which there are thousands of species. Meanwhile, there are so many lawns in the world, and they use a lot of water and provide no resources for biodiversity. It’s kind of a waste, especially when even planting a small 6-foot-by-6-foot pollinator garden can really do a lot for the native insects. So we’re trying to get anyone who is able to convert part of their lawn into a pollinator habitat. That’s the whole end goal of the project: Create something that contributes to the greater health of the environment.
Q: What’s in the app?
BS: The app gives people information on how to convert a patch of lawn to wildflowers. There’s information like how to kill the grass in sustainable ways and what plants are best. We recommend using very different plants in different regions, but all you have to do is click your region to find the right mix for pollinators in your area. We also want people to collect data for us, because we want to know about pollinator abundance and diversity in the plots that they’ve made. So we’ve built a training game into the app, which teaches people to recognize major pollinator groups — things like honeybees versus bumblebees versus all kinds of other bees, plus butterflies, and some flies and beetles. People can play those games to study, and then once they get good enough at it, they can start to count pollinators in their plot and submit data we’ll use for our research.
Q: What will you do with the information the gardeners submit?
BS: We’ll use the data to study factors affecting pollinators in the U.S. and Canada. For instance, we want to see how different elements around the neighborhood, like how much natural area is nearby, impact pollinator abundance and diversity [meaning, population numbers and variety of species.]
Q: What are some of the biggest barriers to getting people to do this?
BS: We did a big mail-out survey and discovered that the largest barriers are time, and not knowing how to plant a pollinator garden. Time will obviously always be an issue, but we’re hoping the resources we provide in the app — like videos, howtos and other information — take away that latter barrier. The other persistent barriers are things like homeowners’ associations and local ordinances that might restrict unmowed areas. We can’t do a lot about those, but we’re hoping to motivate people to encourage their homeowners’ associations to provide an allowance for pollinator habitat, because it does beautify things. It doesn’t make it unkempt; it actually makes the neighborhood prettier and better serves biodiversity.