Seeds

Cheerios seed packet

In March, General Mills Inc. handed out more than a billion wildflower seeds in a promotion aimed at fighting the decimation of bee populations in North America.

After the company’s “Bring Back the Bees” campaign started, Kathryn G. Turner, an evolutionary biologist and postdoctoral fellow in the Dept. of Bioagricultural Sciences and Pest Management at Colorado State University, sounded the alarm on Twitter as some of the seeds on the list are invasive species that kill native plants and take over the places where they grow.

For example, the forget-me-not is banned as a noxious weed in Massachusetts and Connecticut. The California poppy thrives in its state’s namesake but is an invasive and exotic pest plant in southeastern states. And many of the flowers in the Cheerios package are not native anywhere in the United States.

Local experts echo the national dialogue – saying the company meant well but missed the mark.

As a reporter, I was flooded with messages from parents, beginning gardners and bee lovers alike asking – what should I do with these seeds?

So we reached out to three experts for their opinion.

“I think Cheerios was doing a good thing by trying to do this, but it’s just not quite on target for everybody,” said Chris Firestone, a botanist with Department of Conservation & Natural Resources & The Bureau of Forestry.

“I would say yes (you can plant them) with some reservation. For our area they’re okay. There’s really nothing invasive for Pennsylvania or our area. Some of the species are invasive for other states.”

As many of the seeds will be put into the ground by little (and excited) hands, Firestone added, if you’re planting the seeds this year, the results may be slow as some of the annuals may bloom this year but the perennials will take some time to take – if they do at all.

“A lot of these seeds are native to the Western states, so they might grow here and they might not,” Firestone said. “The success for these is questionable.”

The Cheerios website says – The mix includes Baby Blue Eyes, Bergamot, Blue Flax, California Poppy, China Aster, Chinese Forget Me Not, Corn Poppy, Fleabane Daisy, Globe Gilia, Indian Blanket, Lance Leafed Coreopsis, Lavender Hyssop, New England Asters, Plains Coreopsis, Purple Cone Flower, Siberian Wallflower and Sweet Alyssum, and contains annuals, biennials, and perennials that produce flowers throughout the entire growing season in a wide range of colours.

Three species in the pack that are native to Pennsylvania – Bergamot (which won’t be established until next year if planted); New England aster (a native fall perennial which don’t be seen until next year), and daisy fleabane (an annual that will likely pop up this year).

Penn State Extension commercial horticulture educator Thomas G. Ford added the seeds “should be safe to plant” as “essentially Cheerios is gifting a standard meadow mixture.”

“Some of the wildflower species that are being used in this mix are not necessarily native to Pennsylvania or the United States, but none of the species represented are on DCNR’S Invasive plant list,” Ford said.

Amanda Murdock, Elk County Conservation District, added that “non-native” is not the same as invasive.

“Non-native species do not cause environmental or economic harm. Many garden plants today are non-native. People like large showy flowers that would not otherwise grow here, like peonies and tulips,” Murdock explained. “Invasive Plants, are nonnative, but have an aggressive growth habit that eventually takes over, and ultimately eliminates native species that may grow in its territory.”

However, if homeowners want to promote native bees, and native pollinators, native plants are the best option, according to all three.

“Native pollinators evolved with native plants. They need each other to survive,” Murdock added.

Researchers have been closely monitoring bee populations since 2006, when U.S. beekeepers reported hive counts ranging from one-third to an alarming 90 percent less than the previous year. Despite brief periods of recovery, the overall declines have continued ever since, with apiculturists estimating a total annual colony loss of 44.1 percent between April 2015 and March 2016.

This is alarming because more than two-thirds of the crops used to feed people, accounting for 90 percent of the world’s nutrition, are pollinated by bees.

“I would suggest that if anybody wants to do anything for the bees a little pack of seeds is a great start, but it’s not really helping them to be honest,” Firestone said. “The best thing is to plant different perennials that are native to Pennsylvania.

“By doing the natives and perennials you’re not only providing a food source in different times of year but providing for other invertebrates like butterflies as well.”

All three experts pointed planters to the Xerces Society (http://xerces.org), which has regional planting guides of best practices.

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