Honey Nut Cheerios’ Buzz is Disappearing, But Honeybees Are Not

“The world’s bee population is in crisis and Honey Nut Cheerios is coming to the rescue, minus its perky mascot.” — Toronto Star, March 15, 2016

Move over Kathleen Wynne and Glen Murray. There’s a new saviour of bees in town.

General Mills Canada announced last week “Buzz” the honeybee will disappear from its Honey Nut Cheerios packaging for six weeks to raise awareness about “disappearing” bee populations. “Bees everywhere have been disappearing by the millions and it’s time we all did something about it,” says the company’s Bring Back the Bees website.

“One third of the foods we depend on for our survival are made possible by the natural pollination work that bees provide,” said Emma Eriksson, Director of Marketing for General Mills Canada. “With ongoing losses in bee populations being reported across Canada, we’re issuing a call to action to Canadians to help plant 35 million wildflowers – one for every person in Canada.”

Together with PEI-based seed company Veseys, General Mills is encouraging people across Canada to visit BringBackTheBees.ca to request free seed packs to be delivered in the mail. The campaign uses animal rescue videos set to a cover of the 1985 hit “Broken Wings” to tug at your heartstrings about the plight of and the need to help bees in Canada.

20150710_hives canola bee beesThe idea of planting diverse plant species as hosts for bees is great (as long as they’re not promoting noxious weeds, as has happened with milkweed for monarch butterflies here in Manitoba). It’s similar to the BeesMatter.ca initiative launched last year. Promoting awareness about the importance of pollinators such as bees in producing food is also valuable. However, there’s one problem.

Honeybee populations in Canada are not declining. They’re growing.

“It is an advertising piece that does not necessarily represent a true picture,” said Canadian Honey Council executive director Rod Scarlett when I asked him for perspective on the campaign.

If we look at the number of honeybee colonies in Canada, there have never been more. According to Statistics Canada, there were 721 thousand colonies in Canada in 2015, the most reported in StatsCan’s records going back to 1924.

honeybeecoloniesstatscanNative bee populations are much harder to track and there are real concerns about pollinator health, however the BringBacktheBees campaign doesn’t differentiate between honeybees and native bees. The missing Cheerios’ mascot leads us to think all bees are in big trouble. They’re not.

“The health status of bees is precarious, and we are barely ahead of the multitude of different issues that can cause widespread devastation to bee populations, but what irks me is that Cheerios is claiming that bees are disappearing when that in fact is not true, especially in Canada,” noted Alberta beekeeper Lee Townsend in an email. “Canadian honey bee populations are at an all time high, and world populations are in a similar situation.”

To say “bees are disappearing by the millions” is technically true. Bee deaths in the millions are normal in Canada. Winter isn’t kind to bees or their food. It’s considered acceptable to lose 15 percent of colonies in a winter. Scarlett explained the math: a million bees equals between 20 and 30 colonies. There are 720 thousand colonies in Canada, so a 15 percent loss amounts to 108 thousand colonies, or well into the millions. But beekeepers are accustomed to these types of losses and are capable of rebuilding their colonies, as shown by the climbing yellow line in the graph above.

In some ways this bee campaign is similar to General Mills marketing Cheerios as non-GMO. What’s the main ingredient in Cheerios? Oats. Have there ever been GMO oats? No, but why let facts get in the way of advertising?

If General Mills really wants to make a difference in bee health, Townsend suggested the company should donate a portion of proceeds from products that use honey to the Canadian Bee Reseach Fund.

“That money could then be used to the actual benefit of the industry, specifically research on controls for parasitic mites/nosema/nutrition/genetics/ag chemical impacts,” he said. “Plantings seeds is not horrible, but it is little more than a feel-good story for General Mills and their consumers that buy into it. It won’t change the current health status of bees in Canada.”

General Mills’ message is misleading in the context of growing honeybee populations in Canada. Misinformation like this has already led to poorly thought-out farm policy from Wynne and Murray’s government in Ontario. There are billions of honeybees in the country and more colonies than ever before. There are also valid concerns about pollinator health, but the honeybee population in Canada is not disappearing.

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