A Simple Thing You Can Do to Benefit Backyard Birds and Bees

Just delay your spring cleaning. It's that simple.

I’m often asked for easy ways people can help the local wildlife. Well, here’s one task that couldn’t be simpler. In fact, you don’t have to do anything at all, except wait.

If you live in the Northern Hemisphere and have a backyard, it’s approaching the time of year when you start noticing dead stalks, late-falling leaves and the remains of last year’s garden. Perhaps you have the itch to start cleaning, to tidy up the space a bit.

But here’s where you can help: Wait. Postpone your spring cleaning.

Those stalks and dead leaves may look untidy to your sensibilities, but they’re important habitat for pollinators and beneficial insects. Those insects in turn provide food for birds.

It’s time to shirk your lawn care responsibilities and be proud of it.

Insects in Winter

Most gardeners and conservationists know pollinating insects are important. And when it comes to creating pollinator habitat, most of us naturally think about flowers. But insects need healthy habitat year round.

Some insects migrate, but many will stay in the same area through the winter. That means if you plant wildflowers or other plants for beneficial insects, those insects don’t leave when the frost comes. They’re still in your yard. They may be out of sight, out of mind, but they still need a place to spend the winter.

And various dead vegetation often provides that overwintering habitat.

As Penn State Extension notes, many moths and butterflies spend the winter hidden in dead stalks in gardens. Native bees often live underground and rely on dead vegetation and leaves for insulation. Other pollinators spend the winter inside hollow dead stems. Even when bees and other insects start to emerge, they still need cover to keep warm on chilly nights.

If you clean up this vegetation now, you may be undoing the pollinator habitat you created in the summer.

The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation has been leading outreach campaigns encouraging winter pollinator habitat, urging gardeners to “leave the leaves” and “don’t spring into spring cleaning.”

dead leaves and mushrooms
Dead vegetation often provides that overwintering habitat for insects.© Christopher Jordan / TNC

Basically, when you remove dead vegetation and leaves early, you are reducing your yard’s value for beneficial insects. Cut dead stalks and you may be killing butterflies. Remove leaf cover and native bees can freeze.

A lot of gardeners have embraced these campaigns, recognizing the benefit native bees and butterflies offer to the vegetables and flowers they grow. My wife, an avid gardener, follows a lot of gardening groups on social media and “put down those pruners!” memes are difficult to avoid at this time of year.  Curiously, I don’t see similar campaigns among birders.

Many birders with backyards care deeply about providing food and shelter for our feathered friends. Come nesting season, many birds will eat a lot of insects. In fact, some researchers believe that bird declines are, at least in part, tied to insect declines.

When it comes to backyard wildlife habitat, what’s good for pollinators is good for birds. And having a biologically diverse yard is better for all wildlife. It’s time for birders to help get the word out about spring cleaning.

One part of that is to leave some dead vegetation and leaves around through the winter.

pruning shears on the ground
Put down those pruners! © Koby Poulton / TNC Photo by Koby Poulson.

Spring Cleaning Guidelines

So: when is it ok to clean up dead stalks and leaves? A lot of gardening memes urge you to “wait until it is 50 degrees” to do spring cleaning. This is a handy and easy-to-remember rule.

But, as is usually the case with memes, there’s not much room for nuance. Does this mean when the temperature first reaches 50, or when it’s consistently 50? What about night-time temperatures? The Xerces Society states there are no hard rules here but offers some guidelines to help.

For instance, if it’s time to plant tomatoes, you are likely safe to clean up the garden. Similarly, if you’re mowing the lawn, it’s going to be warm enough for native bees to be active. In most parts of North America, right now (late February) is too early. The longer you can wait, the better it is for pollinators – and, yes, for birds.

small olive green bird on dead vegetation
A lesser goldfinch. © Henry / Flickr

Peer Pressure

I acknowledge that there are going to be other factors at play in your spring clean-up. For many, the biggest issue is going to be neighborhood rules and ordinances. Many homeowner’s associations want neat and tidy lawns.

Unfortunately, many conservationists tend to take an “all or nothing” approach to personal actions. Never eat meat. Never buy plastic. Never clean up leaves. Often, this approach isn’t helpful and may turn people away from the cause. It also may just not be feasible.

When it comes to your lawn and garden, it does not have to be all or nothing. Anything pollinator habitat you create can help; you don’t have to create a wilderness in your backyard. If your neighborhood doesn’t allow lots of wild area, consider devoting a corner to pollinator habitat. Leave a small pile of leaves. The Xerces Society notes that these small, unkempt areas can serve as refuges for beneficial insects and other wildlife.

I’m also aware that in many corners of suburbia, lawn and garden care has become a form of competitive sport. If one neighbor starts early spring cleaning, it sets off a chain reaction down the block. No one wants to be the neighbor with the messy yard.

I get it. But maybe, just maybe, you can exert some peer pressure of your own. Most people like birds and butterflies. By showing that your yard is preferred by cardinals and swallowtails, maybe others will join the cause – or at least not turn you into the homeowner’s association.

I know many people love their mowed and clean green yard, but let’s face it: maintaining it isn’t fun. So you might be surprised how many people are open to new ideas.

green and black caterpillar on the grass
By showing that your yard is preferred by cardinals and swallowtails, maybe others will join the cause. © TNC Connecticut

When my wife and I moved into our home 20 years ago, we decided to replace the conventional front yard with native and drought-tolerant plants. When we began ripping up that turf, we got a lot of negative comments from the neighbors. Why would we do that?

Twenty years later, that front yard is well loved by western fence lizards, goldfinches, quail, native bees and many other wild creatures. That was the goal and we expected it.

But you know who else loves it? The neighbors. Kids have always been drawn to the rocks and bushes, perfect places for hiding. Some neighbors use it as a family photo backdrop. When encountering someone on a neighborhood stroll and we describe where we live, we often get “Oh, you’re the ones with the nice yard!”

Similarly, leaving dead vegetation and leaves is not a sign of laziness. Nor is it ugly. An unkempt corner of your yard will add beauty to the neighborhood in the form of butterflies, bees and songbirds.

Taken collectively, North American backyards represent a lot of open space. That space can be a giant monoculture that requires a lot of pesticides, fertilizer, water and boring work to maintain. Or it can be great wildlife habitat, a biologically diverse mini-ecosystem that contributes to larger conservation efforts.

Anyone with a yard can help with that conservation effort right now. Do something else this weekend and save the spring cleaning for later.

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