The Cheerios bee rescue: Can corporations help save pollinators?

Many bee species have been on the decline for decades, but a new promotion from Cheerios hopes to raise awareness of their plight.

Denis Balibouse/Reuters
A bee searches for pollen among cherry blossoms on a sunny spring day in Lausanne, Switzerland, on Monday.

All over the world, bees are vanishing, but not just from the wild. The Cheerios cereal mascot, a cartoon honeybee named Buzz, has also disappeared from his usual position on cereal boxes around the United States.

The missing mascot is one of the company's attempts to leverage their considerable brand recognition to raise awareness about the plight of missing pollinators, while also calling attention to their product. In addition to the vanished Buzz, the company has also been sending out packets of wildflower seeds across the country in an attempt to encourage customers to plant "bee-friendly" flowers.

The plight of bees has steadily gained public awareness in recent years, so calling attention to it makes sense from a marketing standpoint, while also raising awareness for a worthy cause. Bee species have been on the decline for the past two decades, and federal agencies and conservationists have stepped in to help. But the role of powerful corporate interests in the potential recovery of the insects is harder to define than those of their governmental and non-profit counterparts. However, with 30 percent of General Mills products reliant on insect pollination, it is certainly in their best interests to help their insect allies.

"Over 80 percent of flowering plants depend on animals to pollinate them," Elaine Evans, an entomologist and bee expert at the University of Minnesota, tells The Christian Science Monitor. "Most of these pollinators are bees."

There are more than 3,000 species of bees in the US alone. While some are doing fairly well, others are declining radically due to factors such as "loss of habitat, disease and pest problems, exposure to pesticides, and possibly effects of climate change," Dr. Evans explains.

"With plants at the base of the structure of terrestrial ecosystems, and bees supporting most of those plants, bees are an essential to the stability of most terrestrial ecosystems," Evans adds.

According to the Cheerios website, the company has already depleted its stock of 1.5 billion seeds, which were distributed in packets that included a mix of flowers. But some controversy was kicked up online when the weblog Lifehacker accused some of the included seeds of being invasive in certain parts of the country: the California poppy, for example.

However, some of the post's assertions may be questionable: it said that the Chinese Forget-Me-Not, for example, which was included in the seed packet, is banned as a "noxious weed" in Massachusetts and Connecticut. The ban was actually placed on the True Forget-Me-Not, and the Chinese variety actually comes from a different genus than other Forget-Me-Nots.

"The seed varieties in the mix are not considered invasive," said General Mills in a statement, according to Fortune.

But the confusion highlights caveats around corporations' attempts at advocacy: after all, they depend on a positive public image, and emphasize promotional connections to their own products. The ad campaign surrounding the Cheerios strategy, for instance, focused on honeybees (as per the "Honey" part of the "Honey Nut Cheerios" brand). Honeybees, which are commercially managed and not native to the United States, are not in as nearly as dire a position their wild relatives. But General Mills is capitalizing on the familiarity of the honeybee to boost awareness of the plight facing wild bees.

"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," reads a statement from the company.

This is not to say that honeybees are entirely fine, says Evans. 

"To clarify, honeybee populations are not in decline, but they have been having increasing health problems," she tells the Monitor. "The annual losses of colonies are beyond what is economically sustainable for beekeepers."

One pollinator that is in more immediate danger is the rusty-patched bumblebee, which was scheduled to become the first bee in the continental US to officially join the endangered species list. But a regulatory freeze put in place by President Trump's administration delayed the official listing of the insect, prompting a lawsuit from the environmental group the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). 

Mr. Trump's pro-business and anti-regulation stance have concerned many conservationists, but it has also prompted some companies to step up their environmental policies. This "stepping-up" spirit in the business community was reflected in a letter signed by 365 US-based companies and investors, who declared their support for progressive action on climate change in the wake of the election last November.

But some remain skeptical about corporations taking the reins on environmental sustainability. One skeptic is Michelle Mouton, a professor of English at Cornell College who conducts writing courses on food and sustainability.

"Education is fine, but the result must be public pressure on corporations to do more than create good publicity campaigns," Dr. Mouton, who also is the chair of the "Bee City Committee" in Mount Vernon, Iowa, tells the Monitor via email. "Commercial interests, in our current environment, have the most potential to bring about the right kind of change. Many, however, see their bottom line as incompatible with those changes."

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