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Get a Grip, Folks: Cheerios' 'Mistake' is Actually a Teachable Moment for Gardeners

Alyssum 'Snow Crystal' | Photo: Les Serres Fortier, some rights reserved
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Despite what you might read on Twitter, this is not necessarily an ecological disaster area. | Photo: Iowa State University
Despite what you might read on Twitter, this is not necessarily an ecological disaster area. | Photo: Iowa State University

In March 2017, the marketing team for General Mills’ breakfast cereal Honey Nut Cheerios set itself an ambitious goal: to distribute 100 million wildflower seeds to its customers in an effort to boost declining honeybee populations. By the time they ended their campaign after seven days, Cheerios had reached that goal 15 times over, having sent out packets containing 1.5 billion wildflower seeds.

The successful campaign capped off a promotion in which Cheerios’ trademarked bee mascot Buzz “disappeared” from the company’s advertising, represented only in silhouette. The campaign, hashtagged #bringbackthebees, also included a pledge by Cheerios to pay its suppliers to grow 3,300 acres of bee-friendly wildflowers on their 60,000 acres of oat farms, which itself is part of a corporate-wide campaign across many of General Mills’ brands to promote pollinator health.

The success of the seed campaign probably reflected both the concern members of the general public may have over honeybee declines — with North American populations dropping by almost 45 percent between April 2015 and March 2016 — and the enthusiasm members of the public generally have for getting free stuff. By March 20, according to a map on their site, Cheerios’ bee campaign had distributed seeds through the 48 contiguous states, with especially heavy distribution east of the Mississippi River.

But not everyone reacted to Cheerios’ campaign by rushing to their website to get wildflower seeds. Some are slamming the company's efforts, and even calling the seed giveaway an ecological disaster.

Some on social media suggested that the campaign was intended to distract the public from recent studies showing that samples of Cheerios were found to contain detectable amounts of the herbicide glyphosate, which has been indirectly linked to declines in populations of pollinators such as the Monarch butterfly. (Glyphosate has not, as one commenter debunked by Snopes would have it, been linked to honeybee declines.)

Where Cheerios' wildflower seeds went | Map: General Mills
Where Cheerios' wildflower seeds went | Map: General Mills

Some online criticism also focused on the fact that while honeybees are indeed in decline, it’s the decline in native bees and other native pollinators that has scientists most concerned. They’re facing the same array of chemical insecticides as honeybees are, and are losing their native habitat at an increasing rate.

But that criticism was largely an artifact of Cheerios’ messaging, which focused on the brand’s mascot “Buzz” to the exclusion of native pollinators such as bumblebees. A few screens down on Cheerios’ #bringbackthebees website, the company repeatedly uses the phrase “bees and other pollinators,” and the larger campaign across General Mills’ spectrum of brands doesn’t single out honeybees at all. It’s worth noting that the conglomerate has teamed up with the invertebrate conservation organization The Xerces Society to restore as much as 100,000 acres of pollinator habitat in the U.S., and Xerces doesn't work on honeybee issues. They work on conservation of 57 species of bee native to North America, but not honeybees.

The social media side-eye with the most staying power would seem to be aimed at Cheerios’ choice of wildflower seeds to distribute: a “bee feed mix” blended and sold by the Toronto-based Veseys Seed Company  that contains 20 different species of wildflowers, most of them native to the Eastern U.S. and Great Plains. And that prompted concern that Cheerios’ campaign was encouraging people to plant potentially invasive flower seeds all over North America.

Some of the criticism, apparently cribbed hastily from a reasonably astute Lifehacker article, even said that Cheerios might have committed an act of environmental devastation, as in this passage from an article in Business Insider:

There's one problem with Cheerios' charitable effort, however: some of the wildflower species included in the packet of seeds can do serious damage to various ecosystems across the US, reports Lifehacker. The packets contain more than 15 species of seeds, including some that are banned in certain states because they can "take up all the space and use up all the resources" and "spread disease" that could be detrimental to plants and humans...

The disease-spreading idea comes from Lifehacker's interview with ecologist Kathleen Turner, who mentioned disease spread as one in a long list of possible harms invasive plants can do to wild ecosystems. But the likelihood that Cheerios' project would spread disease throughout North America seems a bit far-fetched. 

A bed of non-native Monarda in Southern California, at the Huntington Botanic Garden | Photo: Mary Molinaro, some rights reserved
A bed of non-native Monarda in Southern California, at the Huntington Botanic Garden | Photo: Mary Molinaro, some rights reserved

According to Veseys Seed, the company's Bee Feed mix contains lavender hyssop, rockcress, New England aster, beeplant, lance-leaved Coreopsis, plains Coreopsis, dwarf cosmos, Chinese forget-me-not, purple coneflower, aspen daisy, California poppy, annual Gaillardia, globe Gilia, tidy tips, sweet alyssum, bergamot, forget-me-not, baby blue eyes, corn poppy and Ohio spiderwort. Several of these common names are used to describe more than one species of wildflower, so assessing the list’s potential for including invasive species is slightly tricky.

​Lifehacker's writer, Beth Skwarecki, seems to have been tripped up by this problem, reporting that forget-me-nots are banned as a noxious plant in some northeastern states. There is an invasive forget-me-not, Myosotis semperflorens var. scorpoides, that's on the noxious species lists for several states, but Veseys' website states that the forget-me-not they offer is Myosotis alpestris, which "can reseed freely" but doesn't attract much notice as a potential pest. 

Confusion over common names notwithstanding, we can say one thing with confidence: there is nowhere in North America where every species of seed in Cheerios’ mix is native. Corn poppy, Papaver rhoeas, is native to the Mediterranean region of Europe, Africa, and Western Asia. Rockcress might be either Arabis alpina or Aubrieta deltoidea, but either way, it’s European. The Chinese forget-me-not, as you likely have guessed, is native to East Asia, and — also known as Cynoglossum amabile — can be borderline invasive in parts of North America.

Echinacea purpurea, a component of Veseys' seed mix, which incidentally is perfectly fine to plant | Photo: Daniel Schwen, some rights reserved
Echinacea purpurea, a component of Veseys' seed mix  | Photo: Daniel Schwen, some rights reserved

Even those species on the list that are native to one part of North America might cause problems in another part. California poppies, for instance, are increasingly considered a nuisance in warm-winter parts of the East Coast. “Beeplant,” which is likely Rocky Mountain beeplant a.k.a. Cleome serrulata,is native to many places in the Western United States, but has been reported as invasive in a few places in California, which isn’t in the plant’s native range. Alyssum, Lobularia maritima, is native to the Mediterranean and a potential nuisance in warm moist areas such as California wetlands.

Why is the native status of the seeds in Vaseys’ bee mix important? Partly because of the possibility that some of the plants like Chinese forget-me-nots and California poppies may turn out to be invasive, displacing native flowering plants. And part of it is because those local populations of native pollinators are likely to have evolved in close association with flowering plants native to their areas. Many may well be able to take advantage of flowers that evolved somewhere else, but many other will have close evolutionary ties to specific native plants that might suffer from competition with invasive plants.

The Sierra Club included this packet of seeds in a 2016 bee-related fundraising appeal | Photo: TargetMarketing
The Sierra Club included these seeds in a 2016 bee-related fundraising appeal. | Photo: TargetMarketingMag

But does this mean that Cheerios' campaign has dealt a devastating blow to native wildflowers and the pollinators that depend on them? In a word, no.

Most of the species in this bee food mix are widely available and already widely planted across North America, so it’s not like Cheerios is going to be responsible for new introductions of exotic species in many places. As it turns out, a very similar seed mix was sent out in 2016 as part of a bee-related fundraising appeal by the Sierra Club.

Besides which, odds are that something like 1.2 billion of the 1.5 billion wildflower seeds distributed will never bloom anyway; they’ll either be stashed in their seed packet in a drawer somewhere or scattered in a spot where they don’t get enough sunlight, water, nutrients, or gardeners’ attention to thrive. (Incidentally, if you have a packet of wildflower seeds from Cheerios or from any other source, keep them in your garden. Never plant commercial wildflower seeds out in wild areas.)

If we point a finger at Cheerios, we're singling out one company among, literally, thousands involved in providing these seeds to the consumer regardless of that consumer's location, from seed growers and wholesalers to retail florists, nurseries, hardware stores and supermarkets. At its worst, Cheerios' faux pas is one snowball in an avalanche of deliberate distribution of non-native species to the gardener. And the retail garden supply trade is just one part of an invasive species introduction problem spanning almost the whole of human activity, from recreation to shipping to shipping foodstuffs around the world.

So let’s take this as a teachable moment; not for Cheerios’ marketing team, which at least tried to do something positive, but for the millions of people who paid attention long enough to ask for a packet of bee-feeding wildflower seeds. Scattering a bunch of seeds is one thing. Rethinking your yard and how it helps or hurts pollinators is another. Visit your local nursery and seek some advice about appropriate plantings that might provide food for native pollinators.  The Xerces Society is a great source of advice, though their website seems to have collapsed under Cheerios’ traffic at this writing.

And keep this in mind: all the work in the world growing pollinator-friendly plants doesn’t mean a thing if you turn around and spray your garden with insecticides. Most pollinators would rather you didn’t plant anything at all.

Banner: Alyssum 'Snow Crystal' Photo: Les Serres Fortier, some rights reserved

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