Lawns across Minnesota will become a little more colorful and wild this spring after several thousand residents applied for state funding to plant wildflowers, shrubs and other prime bumblebee habitat in their yards.

The state's Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR) will select the first 500 or so homeowners this week to receive funding under the trial program, which will pay residents up to $350 to plant pollinator gardens or convert their traditional grass lawns to more bee-friendly yards. Interest has been high enough that the state will keep accepting applications online until early June, said Dan Shaw, senior ecologist for BWSR.

"We knew there were going to be a lot of applications for this, but we didn't know we were going to get close to 6,000 of them in just this first round," Shaw said.

State officials plan to award the money, a total of about $900,000 this year, in three rounds for projects throughout the spring, summer and fall. If the program shows enough promise, state officials will try to bring it back every year in the hope of creating enough new habitat to help stabilize or at least slow the collapse of Minnesota's bee and butterfly populations.

The first step was to see if city and suburban homeowners would be willing or able to turn the expanse of traditional short-cut green lawns, which are deserts for pollinators, into much-needed sanctuaries for the insects, Shaw said.

By the number of applicants, alone, it's clear that the will is there, he said.

Ecologists will need to track how well the lawn conversions work — if they can create a noticeable bump in population numbers or if certain kinds of plantings or projects work better than others.

The program's success might depend on how well homeowners are able to cluster or string together places for bees to forage and shelter, said James Wolfin, a native bee expert who works for Metro Blooms, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that is helping the state implement the program.

Minnesota bees have been harmed by fragmentation of their habitats when a new road or neighborhood cuts the insects off and traps them into a smaller and smaller pockets, Wolfin said.

A single yard can only provide so much food or shelter, but a dozen neighboring yards planted with white clovers, blazing stars, milkweeds, or even flowering crabapple or hawthorn trees, could create a pathway that connects pollinators to forests, grasslands, conservations and other "high-forage habitat," Wolfin said.

"This is all about connectivity," he said.

While all of the state's pollinators are struggling, the program was designed to save the rusty patched bumblebee, a fat and fuzzy species on the brink of extinction. In just the past 20 years their population has dropped by nearly 90%, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The bees are left in only 0.1% of their historical range.

The state plans to fund as many small projects as it can in the first year, rather than a handful of larger ones, Shaw said. That will not only help raise awareness and get more people involved, but could help create those clusters and corridors of native plants that bumblebees depend upon, he said.

"Even relatively small plantings provide a lot of benefits for pollinators if we have a lot of landowners doing them," Shaw said.

State ecologists have created planting guides and tips for interested homeowners that are available online. They range from relatively easy and cheap pocket plantings for beginners to full-blown lawn conversions and restorations.

Laura Rice, a Richfield homeowner who is interested in applying for the program, said she's hopeful it will encourage people to start taking steps to cut down pesticide use and get the message out that dandelions and clovers can be beneficial to keep around.

"We just have to start to do little things like that," Rice said.

Greg Stanley • 612-673-4882