Dhanya Baird | February 21, 2018
Picture in your mind’s eye the world that lies below a humble city-bee, an explorer striving to acquire food for the hive. In many places, this view would be made up of houses, large lengths of concrete, and, in my Canadian homeland and many other nations, millions upon millions of shining green patches of death – the modern lawn. For lawns, manicured, overly-watered, frequently coated with pesticides and herbicides, frequently lacking in flowers, must be as deserts to the bee, and flower beds as tiny oases.
This makes lawns a serious issue, as bee populations (as well as those of other pollinators like bats and butterflies) have declined drastically in recent years. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust notes that during the 20th century two species of bee became extinct in the UK, with eight more species endangered. Bees only journey about a kilometre away from their hive, and if there are not enough flowers available within this area, the entire hive suffers. Given that our survival is so inextricably connected to the survival of pollinators, it is logical that we should do everything in our power to help them. (I would argue that bees are also adorable and fluffy, and that this is reason enough to save them. Seriously, if it weren’t for the stinger they would be very tempting to pet. However, I understand why this argument may not work for everyone.) In order to help the bees, it’s clear we need to make some changes. One such area of potential change is the lawn.
Unlike other areas of bee habitat, such as farmland, there is no particular reason why the lawn needs to exist in its current state. In many cases, the types of grasses used to cover the naked earth are not suited for the climate, requiring more mowing, watering, and fertilizing than an equivalent like the moss lawn. This is significant, as all three of these activities can cause further damage to the environment. To give just one example, some estimates name gas-powered lawn mowers as the cause of up to 5% of air pollution in the US. This estimate shocked me. The lawn is such a ubiquitous part of the North American landscape I grew up in that I had never pondered the damage it caused. Mowing the lawn was just a thing that you did, as otherwise the neighbours would complain and the grass would become a fire hazard.
The lawn is everywhere, both in the physical space around us and the figurative space that pop culture inhabits. The teenager in the 2003 hit song “Stacy’s Mom” stalks the title character as he mows her lawn. In the video game Plants vs. Zombies a major goal in gameplay is protecting the sanctity of the lawn. Lawns abound in television as a symbol of the middle class family unit. In fact, the lawn did not exist in its current form until about the 18th century, at which time it was the province of the elite, as no one else could afford the costs of lawn maintenance. (I’ve read in a few places that apparently golf was a major cause of lawns becoming so popular, as the wealthy and powerful wished to be able to play the game on their own lawn. To which I say: well done golf, in ruining it for the rest of us. Way to kill the bees, golf.)
Thus, the lawn is a bee-killer, a major source of pollution in many forms, and, originally, a product of classism. Perhaps it is time to rethink the lawn. While looking out the window at a vista of green lawns is pleasant, and the smell of a freshly mowed lawn can be nostalgically beautiful, as one recalls carefree days spent rollicking over green grasses, the price is not worth these tiny values. And with so many types of greenery available as options, perhaps it is time to create a new idea of what the lawn is, and take one small step in saving the bees.
Dhanya is a second year PhD student in the department of Celtic and Scottish Studies, studying betrayal in Irish medieval texts. In her free time, she enjoys working with textiles and reading fantasy novels.
Article edited by Lucy Hargrave and Patricia Ng.