UPDATED: Can we talk about this Cheerios thing?

A very interesting thing has happened this week*! Cheerios, a cereal maker if you weren’t familiar, has started a new “conservation” initiative to “save the bees”! My liberal usage of quotation marks demonstrates how mixed my feelings are on this effort.

I find it fascinating. Of course, it has generated a huge controversy in my field. When I first heard about it, I was annoyed that I couldn’t find a list of the species that would be sent anywhere on their webpage (it’s there now), and I was dubious about the quality of the effort. But then I watched the video and I saw that Marla Spivak was backing it! Dr. Spivak is an awesome pollination biologist and I enjoy her work a lot, so I thought, well if Dr. Spivak thinks it’s ok…

I even forwarded the webpage to my sister, mother, and another friend with land so that they might plant some flowering things.

Then this effort exploded in some of my other ecology-oriented social media channels. It was denigrated as “misguided” and “greenwashed”. I had a really interesting discussion with my new adviser about it.

The seeds that Cheerios is so generously sending around** are not native, and certainly not locally native to the regions where they will ultimately (hopefully) be planted. There is no science behind the composition of the selection, and no reason why it would particularly benefit native bees. When I mentioned Dr. Spivak’s support to my new adviser, she said, “Well, is she a honeybee specialist?” And I said, “OH.” Because honeybees are generalists and will visit almost anything, so any form of flowering plant will be useful to them.

So I want to break down this whole thing into manageable chunks.

1) Who are we trying to help? Honeybees specifically? All bees? Native bees? Wild bees?

  • Cheerios hashtag (#bringbackthebees) is non-specific, but they’re probably referring to honeybees, the primary focus of most people when they talk about “bees”***. However, the research they cite on how valuable bees are to agricultural pollination importantly includes wild bee pollination services!  You can’t make an argument about how important bees are as pollinators and ignore the wild bees. There are many plants (including some crops) that can only be effectively pollinated by wild bees (for example, those that can buzz pollinate).
  • Many conservation efforts are focused on supporting honeybees because they are our dominant managed (i.e. for agricultural pollination) pollinator****. Yet it may be even better to support wild bees…my research in New York apple orchards showed that wild bees perform more than twice the pollination services as managed honeybees there.
  • HONEYBEES ARE NOT ENDANGERED, their species is thriving around the world. The problem we’re seeing with them is declines in managed populations that are economically important. Again, the species is not facing extinction…it’s a globally introduced invasive non-native species.
  • A lot less is known about wild bees, including how to support them, but many researchers have spent a lot of time and effort to develop guides for supporting wild bees and they could use some broader attention.

2) Is it better to plant something than nothing at all?

  • I’ve gone back and forth on this argument with a lot of people. Sam Droege says planting these non-native floral resources only supports the “crow and sparrow” bees, which are doing fine anyway (they like humans and thrive in human modified habitat).
  • The issue is what you’re changing from. If you’re taking a piece of lawn (a green desert for bees) and changing into ornamental flowers, well that’s better than nothing! If you’re changing a healthy meadow into “conservation land” where you plant only non-natives, that’s a problem.
  • These non-native plants can be valuable resources to native bees as well. My own research has shown that even invasive species can be strongly preferred by native bees in degraded landscapes. For example, bees love thistles!
  • There’s also an issue of being too picky…I think if we’re TOO pedantic about what we should plant, a lot of people will give up and plant nothing at all.  Cheerios is making planting SOMETHING easy…which is better than the nothing most busy people can afford.  The three people I forwarded the link to generally plant nothing…so this could still make a difference for them.

3) How important are broad-based efforts that reach millions of people? Can scientists manage something of this scale and popularity?

  • Efforts like the one by Cheerios reach a huge number of people. This seems valuable to me just in the way it draws people’s attention to the issue.  On such a broad scale, just the virtue of planting more flowers seems like a good thing.  Maybe once people are used to planting things, we can teach them how to plant “better” things.
  • Of course, by the same virtue, this means that we are introducing more non-native plants on a huge scale. But most of these species are popular ornamentals anyway…although most ornamentals aren’t a) attractive to pollinators or b) providing any floral resources.
  • Cheerios is popular, especially among kids. This means that their conservation effort could be a learning opportunity for children.  I know, I know…many people think they’re learning the “wrong” things. But I don’t think you can explain the details of “native” and “non-native” and “ornamental” to young children.  If they’re participating in this, they’re learning how to grow flowers from seeds, that flowers are good, that flowers support bees, and that bees are good.  All of this seems beneficial to me.  My sister has three young children and I’m hoping she’ll participate with them.
  • Science may not always be able to rely on federal funding*, so having corporations interested in and supporting our work can be hugely valuable.  I once attended a conference that was largely sponsored by Haagen Daaz ice cream…I still buy their ice cream on the rare occasion I buy ice cream because they “support bee research”, whatever that may mean.

4) How important are the ideas and feelings behind this campaign?

  • If the idea behind the campaign is, let’s encourage everyone to make a small contribution toward bee conservation!  And, the more people planting flowering habitat, the better for bees!  I support this all the way.  As we learned in recent political events, feelings can be more important than rational facts.  We want people to be excited and feel good about bee conservation.  It’s a good first step.
  • Is Cheerios using conservation to attract attention and make money?  Probably.  It’s a for profit company.  But they could be attracting attention and making money in any number of ways and this one may lead to actual conservation benefits. The effort by Haagen Daaz mentioned above is thought to have somewhat rescued their company.
  • How important are facts?  Most people don’t care about the scientific names and data-driven graphs I present in public talks. But they do care about the bees. Bees are cute and I think people are finally understanding that they contribute to the foods we eat in important ways.  Maybe we shouldn’t get bogged down on the details if we’re trying to get broad support. In other words, maybe we should climb down from the ivory tower and plant some flowers.
  • Will it do permanent damage to bee conservation?  Maybe, but I doubt it.  I think the larger problems revolving around conservation using non-native plant species involve the ones where the government is providing subsidies for planting conservation land.  That’s where there’s larger potential for damage, such as converting relatively healthy fallow fields into fields of subsidized alfalfa or clover.  I’m not sure, but it’s something to think about.

5) UPDATE: (I’m adding in this section based on discussions I’ve had with friends and colleagues.)  How accessible are native plant species?

  • In my experience, it is very difficult to obtain local, reliable sources of native plant seed.  For one experiment in Pennsylvania, I drove four hour each way to get native plants to work with.
  • Even “conservation seed” suppliers sell species that are non-native and few native species.  One such supplier had only five native annuals for sale, including four asters (pretty poor diversity).  That is a major conservation seed supplier!
  • For my current experiment in Ireland, I’m pretty much failing to find native seed source and will ultimately have to order seeds from the UK. There is apparently only one native seed supplier in Ireland, and they don’t have the species I’m looking for.
  • This means that the vast majority of people who are planting for bees are either using showy, attractive non-natives, or a very select few native species that are commercially available.  The Cheerios seed mix isn’t so different from that!

IN SUMMARY, I don’t think this Cheerios campaign is as terrible as some of my colleagues feel it is.  I think it has a lot of potential to reach a broad audience and, in general, it reflects changing attitudes toward bees and conservation in a positive way.  It is perfect?  Not in any sense of the word.  Is it a good first step?  I think it is….but not everyone does. 😉

I’ll still be helping my sister and her three kids plant a little pollinator garden in their Philly suburb.*****

*(Let’s ignore the new US administration’s brutal cuts to scientific and medical funding, shall we?)
**The grammar looks strange in that sentence, but I think it’s correct.
***If this is your first time here, there are between 20,000 and 25,000 species of bees.
****The cows of the bee world
*****Land of a thousand lawn mowers as one of my Philly friends used to say


22 thoughts on “UPDATED: Can we talk about this Cheerios thing?

  1. wow brilliantly written put together and thought through, really excellent! Im with you build momentum, get people a taste and let them find more info or provide more as momentum grows, and keep an eye out for the loss of conservation lands and save the uproar for that fight. Thankyou so much for these thoughts, I have a lot to think about today 🙂

  2. Good, thoughtful analysis. I came to my appreciation of native bees through beekeeping. Even if the “little honeys” hadn’t tried to kill me forcing me out of the hobby I would still be into the natives along with the exotics. People are going to get interested in what they get interested in and that’s what they’ll care about. Maybe this campaign will be the gateway to a broader appreciation of native pollinators for some. If nothing else it may plant the seed 😉 for a later time when they get some exposure to info about native bees and so have a foundation of bee awareness to build on.

    “I think the larger problems revolving around conservation using non-native plant species involve the ones where the government is providing subsidies for planting conservation land.” Yes, this. And also the ag practices that are used to grow the crops that are processed into Cheerios are probably a bigger issue than someone planting a little bed of exotic flowers.

    • I agree that the bigger problem are the pesticides and herbicides sprayed on the crops Cheerios buys. What good is it to plant flowers if you are going to spray them with Glyphosate/Roundup, etc.? It is a beginning, but it looks more like a PR campaign rather than a meaningful effort to support the world’s bees. We’re back to “anything is better than nothing.”

      • I’m sure it’s a PR campaign, but it could be a much more damaging PR campaign…and it could have some conservation benefit. Yes, I do feel like anything is better than nothing. Especially when it’s such an effort to get people to care at all!
        Hopefully, people won’t apply pesticides to these gardens!!

      • It depends…a lot of people believe (and there’s evidence to support!) that widespread pesticide usage is either the biggest or one of the biggest contributors to our loss of pollinators. So if that’s the case, Cheerios would do better to spray fewer pesticides than to send out seeds. I think “we spray 50% fewer pesticides” is less catchy than their seed campaign though, haha.

  3. That was a great analysis of a very complicated subject. I think we should be contented with the positives and the general awakening of interest. The people with real interest will find out more, for those that have no interest at all it will be forgotten before the cereal packet is finished. Amelia

  4. Interesting analysis. My first reaction to wildlife initiatives by cereal makers, car manufacturers or purveyors of kitchenware is suspicion and cynicism. (** Insert “that” between “seeds” and “Cheerios” maybe?)

  5. Nice thoughtful post! I agree with your points about trying to explain the details to kids – planting flowers is easy & it works! But I also think that’s a bit of a cop-out for big companies. It is very easy for ‘save the bees’ initiatives to promote non-Apis pollinator diversity without getting mired in technical details. Why not change the tag to #bringbackthepollinators, or have a mascot/logo that isn’t a honeybee, e.g. a native bee & a hoverfly dancing together, something silly to start a conversation? 🙂

    • There are a lot of ways this could be improved, and I’m really glad we’re having a conversation about it! (That might even be more valuable than the initiative itself!) But I think the reaction is overblown. I don’t think the list is really any worse than what your average person would buy at their local nursery…trust me, I’ve tried to find good sources of native species and it’s really tough! Most nurseries sell “bee pasture” mixes of ornamental and non-native species, which is basically just what Cheerios is doing. They found a cheap source for showy flowers and then bought a whole bunch and gave them away. Would I rather there be good sources of natives? YES that would make my life so much easier. But I had to drive four hours each way to get natives for one experiment in Pennsylvania. It’s not easy.
      Edit: I updated my post to reflect this point as well!

  6. Can I just say I love you? Posted this on my Facebook feed. I ❤ your analysis and your conscientiousness here. Keep on informing the world about SCIENCE.

    PS, I live just north of Philadelphia and am shocked you had to drive 4 hours into PA to find natives. But then again, my meadow has been overrun by non-natives in the past few years. We do still have native milkweeds, and penstemon (they are natives? Or am I wrong about that?) and butterfly weed (a few). But I admit defeat by invasives. I just hope that the wild bees like the invaders enough to stay healthy.

  7. Pingback: Why repetition is good for science – Ecology is not a dirty word

  8. Pingback: Update on the Cheerios seed mix | standingoutinmyfield

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