Bee populations are in decline, and Cheerios wants to help. So far, so good. But they are sending free packets of wildflower seeds to people all over the country—and some of the flowers included are invasive species that, in some areas, you should probably not plant.
Forget-me-not is banned as a noxious weed in Massachusetts and Connecticut, for example. The California poppy is nice in California, but listed as an “invasive exotic pest plant” in southeastern states. And many of the flowers on this list are not native to anywhere in the US, so they are not necessarily good matches for our local bees.
I asked Kathryn Turner, an ecologist who specializes in invasive plants and who was concerned about Cheerios’ approach, how it can be bad to plant a flower. “Context is important,” she said:
No plant is inherently ‘bad’, but many species can and have caused a great deal of damage when they are introduced into locations outside of their native range. Invasive species can out-compete the natives they encounter, they can take up all the space and use up all the resources, they can spread disease, and cause other physical changes to their new homes, all of which can have detrimental effects on native species, and on humans. It doesn’t happen with every plant and in every location, and scientists (like me!) are working now to figure out why that is, how to predict what will cause a problem, how to manage or prevent invasions.
I don’t want to blow this out of proportion: alongside this giveaway, Cheerios is actually doing some good things for bees. And even though the seeds are problematic, they’re not exactly shipping packets of ecological doom. Heck, most of the seeds are probably going to languish in a drawer, unplanted, or be dumped outside and neglected by brown thumbs like me. But some of them, in the wrong place, might well spark a new invasion or might contribute to an already invasive population of nasty weeds.
Here Are Some Far Better Ways to Help Bees
The idea is well intentioned, but you can’t expect one seed mix to be right for everybody’s backyard. What’s odd is that Cheerios partnered with Xerces, an organization dedicated to supporting pollinators, but didn’t use their locally customized, ecologically friendly seed mixes. If you’d like to plant a wildflower garden, maybe start with those instead.
I looked up all the plants in Xerces’ Eastern Great Lakes Region mix (good for Indiana, Ohio, western Pennsylvania, and western New York) and all are native to my region. Many are endangered, so planting them in these areas helps to restore their populations in areas where they may be disappearing.
Xerces also publishes regional gardening guides to help you figure out the best plants to buy if you prefer a DIY approach. Meanwhile, if you want to check the status of a random plant you’ve brought home from a garden store, check out the USDA’s PLANTS database. If your state is green, that means the plant is native there. Click on the “legal status” tab to see if the plant is on any federal or state noxious weed lists.
But there’s more to creating a bee-friendly habitat than just planting flowers. If you spray pesticides on or near the flowers, the bees are once again in danger, so you need to be aware of what you (or your lawn service) is spraying. Xerces would like you to sign a pollinator pledge swearing that you’ll lay off the insecticides, and that you’ll grow plants that nourish bees and other pollinators (like butterflies and their caterpillars) year-round.
Honeybees Aren’t the Type of Bees That Are Most at Risk
When you’re setting up your bee-friendly garden, make sure to leave space for the bees to lay their eggs in and near the ground. If this sounds a little weird, welcome to the biggest myth you’ll have to confront as a self-appointed savior to the bees: honeybees that live in hives are not the ones we’re really worried about.
So back away from that image of a sad beekeeper with boxes and boxes of honeybee hives. Colony collapse disorder was unfortunate but not devastating. Those bees are employees in big agrobusiness, and they have jobs and caretakers all around the world. Entomologist Gwen Pearson points out that honeybees are “not remotely threatened with extinction” but thousands of lesser-known bee species are. You can see a list of our imperiled bees here; many are marked “PE” for “possibly extinct.”
A lot of these native bees live on their own, not in colonies, and they lay their eggs in little tunnels in the ground. The mother gives each baby bee a loaf of “bee bread” made of pollen and nectar. Since they don’t have a colony to protect, these bees don’t even sting.
So if you want to save the bees by planting flowers, these are the ones you should dedicate your garden to.
Habitats Around Farmland Are Important—and Cheerios Is Planting Those Too
Ironically, the oats that go into Cheerios are wind-pollinated, no bees required. But farming of all kinds can threaten bees. Crop fields are often sprayed with insecticides that can harm bees, and herbicides that kill the weeds that bees depend on.
So, while the wildflower giveaway has gotten a lot of likes and shares (because who doesn’t love free stuff?) the more helpful thing the company is doing is to plant bee habitats around farmland. They’ve been doing this for a while, actually. Here’s what General Mills says toward the bottom of the press release about their marketing campaign:
Last spring, Honey Nut Cheerios announced that by the end of 2020, farms that grow oats for Cheerios will house approximately 3,300 total acres of dedicated pollinator habitat on 60,000 acres of land. Previous pollinator habitat plantings on General Mills’ supplier farms indicate that each pollinator habitat is expected to double the amount of bees in the area.
Even though their public-facing website makes a bigger deal about how much crops depend on honeybees, the release faces facts. They point out that a major reason native pollinators are threatened is because crop land is taking away their habitat. And they acknowledge the difference between the bees that are threatened and the ones who have job security:
Although, BuzzBee and his honey bee friends may not be in danger of extinction like some other pollinators, in the interest of protecting our food supply, General Mills is committed to helping all pollinators thrive through the planting of these habitats.
A similar wildflower planting effort is behind a campaign by Burt’s Bees. Sure, they want you to buy their limited edition lip balms and post their hashtag on social media, but behind the scenes they’re putting money into pollinator habitats for farms in their home state of North Carolina.
So, even though the wildflower seed giveaway is a little misguided, the idea of planting a garden for pollinators is an excellent idea whether you’re a farm or just a person with a scrap of land to contribute to the cause.