General Mills’ Push to Sow Wildflowers to Help Bees Reaps Criticism

Its pollinator seed giveaway was a huge hit, but some advocates challenge the flower mix.

March 22, 2017 | Source: Star Tribune | by Josephine Marcotty

General Mills tried to help the bees this spring, and instead it got stung.

Native plant lovers across the country are complaining that the 1.5 billion seeds the company has given away in the last week to encourage people to plant bee-friendly wildflowers are, well, not that bee-friendly.

In fact, native plant experts said that some of the 20 different species in the wildflower mix could be unwelcome weedy interlopers in some parts of the country, and not especially attractive to bees and butterflies in others.

“At worst these things can potentially introduce weedy plants where they might not currently exist,” said Eric Mader, a native plant specialist with the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, which advises General Mills on its pollinator conservation program. “At best … I don’t know if there is a best.”

The seed supplier, Veseys of York, Prince Edward Island, said the seed mixes do not contain invasives and were selected for their attractiveness to pollinators everywhere.

It’s a rare stumble for General Mills, which is widely acclaimed by conservationists as a model for what the corporate world could do to protect insects that play a critical role in the nation’s food system. The company has given $4 million to the Xerces Society for pollinator protection, has established thousands of acres of pollinator habitat around its suppliers’ growing fields across the country, and is reducing suppliers’ reliance on pesticides.

The seed packet giveaway “is an insignificant part of what they are doing,” said Mader.

The episode began last week, when General Mills’ U.S. Cheerios division joined an ongoing campaign with its Canadian sibling. The Golden Valley-based food company took the “BuzzBee” logo off 10 million cereal boxes and asked its customers to help “bring the bees back” by ordering free packets of wildflower seeds that they could plant for pollinators to feast on.

“The goal was to raise awareness of pollinators,” said Mike Siemienas, a spokesman for General Mills.

It was hugely successful. Canadians ordered 134 million seeds. Since March 9, when the program launched in the United States, customers have ordered 1.5 billion seeds — 500 million more than the original goal — and depleted the available supply.

But alarm bells started going off on social media and listservs among native and wild plant advocates across the country. Then the website Lifehacker posted a story citing those concerns, which multiplied across other media sites.

The problem, plant experts said, is that there is no good one-size-fits-all seed mix for all of Canada and the United States, with their vast array of regional ecologies. The packet contains California poppies, for example, which are fine in California but can be aggressive growers in other parts of the country.