Reality check: Will Cheerios’ free wildflower seeds spread invasive plant species?

Cheerios' free wildflower seed packs.

Cheerios’ distribution of 1.5 billion wildflower seeds in an effort to #BringBackTheBees has prompted concern that it will lead to the spread of invasive plant species.

The wildflower packets include a variety of plant seeds — including forget-me-not, blue flax, and lavender and are intended to help North America’s bee population.

So what’s the harm in a sprinkling of pretty flowers?

“Well there are a number of concerns really,” said ecologist Ken Towle, vice president of the Ontario Invasive Plant Council.

READ MORE: How the pesticide believed to be killing the bees could be affecting humans

For one thing, some of the species on the list aren’t even native to North America, said Towle. Some are potentially invasive, and one of them — the forget-me-nots — is highly invasive.

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“So much so that it’s been banned, the sale of it in Massachusetts,” said Towle.

He said Latin names of the flower seeds in the packs must be supplied, because “you can’t always go by the common name.”

Many of the plants are only found in one area of North America, he said. Just because a plant thrives in California doesn’t mean it should be planted in Newfoundland. 

“If a package containing all of them is going out to people all over North America, then some of these species are going to be planted in places that are way outside of their natural range,” said Towle.

“Some of them could really enjoy the new soil types or climate they are introduced in and could begin to spread into natural areas and compete with native varieties.”

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Veseys Seeds, a PEI-based company with a 75-year history that supplied the seeds for Cheerios, has defended the flower mix on its Facebook page in response to questions and concerns from the public.

“It has been field-tested and is known to attract honey bees, bumble bees, and other native bees such as mining bees, leaf cutter bees, sweet bees and long-horned bees,” the company posted online.

“In most locations, the seed mixture species will be non-native but not considered invasive.”

For a plant to be invasive, a species must be non-native with a tendency to spread and threaten the environmental, economic or social health of an area, Veseys said.

“Some species within the mixture have the potential to become naturalized, adding to the bio-diversity of the area without negatively impacting the environment.”

READ MORE: Silence of the bees: ‘It has to stop. It just has to stop.’

The company’s production practices are in full compliance with Canada’s Seeds Act, it stated.

Cheerios agreed, responding to concerns on social media:

This is the second year Cheerios has distributed wildflower seeds as part of its Bring Back the Bees campaign. Last year the seed giveaway was only in Canada, and this year was expanded to the U.S.

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Cheerios’ campaign has worked to highlight just how much we rely on bees, including opening a pop-up grocery store in Toronto showing how bare the shelves would be without the tiny pollinators.

WATCH: Eerie look at what a grocery store would look like in a world without bees

Click to play video: 'Eerie look at a grocery store of the future' Eerie look at a grocery store of the future
Eerie look at a grocery store of the future – Mar 9, 2017

Towle said while the company’s heart was in the right place, the execution was flawed.

“I appreciate the fact that Cheerios has taken on an initiative like this, are demonstrating a concern for bees and other pollinators because there is a need to do more for them since so many species are in decline,” said Towle.

However, he firmly advised against using the seeds to guard against the spread of invasive species. He recommends going to your local nursery to find the right flowers for your area.

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Native species generally grow better anyway, Towle said, and local bees are adapted to pollinating those native species. 

“So in general, the native species will be better for [the bees] than the non-native ones.”

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