Lawrence retirees turn backyard into bee sanctuary
It’s just past 9:30 a.m. at Mary Donnally’s house in suburban west Lawrence, where the doting grandmother of 12 has just prepared a pancake breakfast for her family.
Three-year-old Finnegan and four-year-old Madigan are visiting from Boulder, Colo., and their grandma has promised them a special treat after breakfast.
Under the watchful eye of his grandparents and mother, Madigan ascends a ladder to release a packet of leaf-cutter bees onto the ledge of a special “bee house” nestled in a tree along his grandparents’ backyard fence.
“I love you,” Madigan tells the bees, and he appears to mean it.
Mary loves them, too.
“I love my bees,” says Mary, a retired homemaker who has spent the last few years turning her yard into a bee sanctuary.
She and her husband, Reaumur Donnally, a retired vice president of Kohl’s department stores, began attending environmental presentations about three years ago, Mary recalls. At that point, “it got really serious,” Mary says of her interest in all things green.
The couple also has solar panels installed on their roof, an electric Tesla sedan and, of course, their beloved bee sanctuary. For Mary, that means no herbicides, no pesticides, and plenty of pollinator-friendly flowers. She’s especially proud of her front yard, which is covered in white microclover, which is known for attracting bees.
It also requires just one third of the water that grass does, is weed-deterrent and has the remarkable ability to convert nitrogen from the air and enrich it back into the soil, eliminating the need for fertilizer.
“We’re sitting in Alvamar, and we did have the perfect manicured lawn and came to understand that a green lawn is like a desert,” Mary says. “It’s a desert for life — it kills the bees, it kills the wildlife, it’s not good for the birds, it’s not good for anything. It’s not even good for the grass.
“So, it was like, Enough. Done,” she says. “Let’s get another idea of beauty.”
Mary really does find clover beautiful. Some of the neighbors were skeptical at first, she says, but they seem to have come around, too.
“Now people are stopping. They walk by all the time. We’re a favorite on the walking path around here,” Mary says.
Her yard began spurring so many questions that Mary eventually added a sign out front — “Bee Sanctuary … No herbicides. No pesticides.” On the back of the sign, she includes information on microclover and its benefits beyond attracting bees.
The only component the Donnallys don’t have are bee hives. The neighbors weren’t completely comfortable with the idea, Mary says, and she wanted to respect their wishes.
“We do want to be considerate. And what we don’t want to do is get anybody angry, because that’s not the point,” Mary says. “We don’t want to have backlash against it. We want to promote this as something that’s fun, good — there’s no downside to it.”
There’s no downside to ordering a packet of leaf-cutter bees, either, she says. A packet of 100 bees, nestled in their cocoons, costs about $40. That’s 40 cents per bee. And they’re gentle, too — so much so that Mary’s two dogs have swallowed several without getting stung, she says.
Mary’s grandsons aren’t afraid of the bees, either. Next spring, she’ll bring in mason bees, another species known for their gentleness and super-pollinator status.
Mary’s daughter likes to joke about her mom’s eco-friendly hobbies. While other retirees, like her daughter’s neighbors, buy lake houses in the Ozarks, Mary Donnally installed a pair of collapsible seats for her grandchildren in the back of her Tesla.
“She said, ‘My neighbor comes over all the time and goes, ‘OK, your parents bought their electric car and their solar panels and their bee house, but we bought a lake house!'” Mary says. “I thought about that, and I thought, that’s because that’s the legacy we want.”
In just one year, she’s seen a transformation in her yard. The space has “exploded” with birds and bugs of all kinds, she says. Now, Mary and Reaumur often see bats flying overhead, no doubt eating all the garden pests. The mosquitoes seem to have reduced, and so have the spiders, Mary says.
She wants to see other yards embrace bees like she has. In Lawrence, a town with “a wonderful social consciousness,” folks seem more open to these kinds of ideas, Mary says. Especially the young people, in her observations as a Baby Boomer.
“We realize this is your generation. It’s going to be your generation who are going to be feeling this,” Mary tells the Journal-World’s twentysomething reporter, referencing the effects of climate change and bee colony collapse.
“I don’t want to be one of those people in my generation who gets blamed for it all,” she says. “I did my damage before. I want to make up for it now.”