Pollinator Friendly Methods for Mowing Fields

Late summer and fall wildflowers are important sources of late pollen and nectar for pollinators. Photo credit: Shannon Trimboli, all rights reserved.

Property owners and land managers will often mow large fields in the fall. Sometimes this is done for aesthetic reasons. Sometimes it is done because “that’s the way it’s always been done.” And sometimes it is done out of a desire to keep trees and other woody vegetation from taking hold in the field, especially if a prescribed fire is not an option. If you’re someone who mows fields in the fall, then there are a couple of simple things you can do to make this activity more pollinator friendly.

1) Wait until after the first couple of hard killing frosts before you mow.

Hummingbirds need a steady supply of flowers and small, soft-bodied insects as they migrate south. We have over a dozen different species of migratory butterflies, including the monarch butterfly, that also need a steady supply of nectar as they migrate. Then there are all the butterflies and bees that don’t migrate, but rely on the availability of fall flowers as they prepare for winter.

Migrating butterflies, like this monarch butterfly, need a steady supply of nectar as they make their way south each fall. Photo credit: USFWS, public domain

Unfortunately, the traditional times for mowing fields is in the early to mid-fall. That is exactly the time when the fields are in full bloom with goldenrods, ironweeds, thoroughworts, asters, and many other flowers. These flowers create a pollinator oasis and provide critical sources of nectar and pollen for hummingbirds, butterflies, bees, and much more.

Simply waiting to mow until after the first couple of killing frosts will allow the pollinators to take advantage of the flowers during their migration or when they are making their final preparations for winter.

2) Only mow part of the field each year

Many of our butterflies overwinter as a chrysalis or egg attached to grass or flower stalks. Several of our native bees lay eggs in the hollow stalks of last year’s dead plant stems. Praying mantises overwinter as egg cases attached to plant stems.

If you cut the entire field every year, then you are destroying any insects that were set to overwinter in that field. However, if you only cut approximately 1/2 to 1/3 of the field each year, then the uncut part can still provide winter habitat for butterflies, stem-nesting native bees, praying mantises, and other insects.

Leaving part of a field unmowed each year provides winter food and shelter for songbirds, wildlife, and many insects. Photo credit: USFWS Midwest Region, public domain

Wildlife such as songbirds, rabbits, and small mammals can also benefit from a partial mowing pattern. The unmowed parts of the field will provide seed heads throughout the winter plus cover to hide from predators.

The next spring, the uncut areas will continue to provide thicker areas in which to hide or raise young. The mowed areas, on the other hand, will provide a flush of new growth, easily digestible vegetation, and an abundant supply of insect prey.

Only mowing or bush hogging part of the field each year creates a more complex and multi-aged habitat which benefits both wildlife and pollinators. Rotating which sections you mow and don’t mow each year will prevent any part of the field from becoming too overgrown and will keep out most of the woody vegetation. The result is a much more pollinator friendly and wildlife friendly way to care for large fields compared to mowing the whole thing down every year.

Backyard Ecology: Exploring Nature in Your Backyard
Nature isn’t just “out there.” It’s all around us, including right outside our doors. Hi, my name is Shannon Trimboli, and I am the host of Backyard Ecology. I live in southcentral Kentucky and am a wildlife biologist, educator, author, beekeeper, and owner of a nursery specializing in plants for pollinators and wildlife conservation. I invite you to join me as we ignite our curiosity and natural wonder, explore our yards and communities, and improve our local pollinator and wildlife habitat. Learn more or subscribe to my email list at www.backyardecology.net.

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