Cheerios campaign creates buzz of controversy, but there are other ways to bring back the bees

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Cheerios campaign creates buzz of controversy, but there are other ways to bring back the bees

A cereal company's offer of free wildflower seeds to help bees has felt the sting of controversy online — but local experts say there are are other ways to support healthy bee populations in Manitoba.

As part of its "Bring Back the Bees" campaign, General Mills has offered free seed packets — from P.E.I.'s Veseys Seeds — on millions of boxes of Honey Nut Cheerios, with the intention of raising awareness about the importance of bees as pollinators.

But questions arose in news stories and on social media about the seeds, and whether they included species that are invasive or genetically modified.

Veseys Seeds has denied those claims. And one Manitoba horticulturist agrees the plants aren't invasive — but also says there are plenty of ways to help bees. 

"I think it's really interesting that this whole conversation is happening because I think that is the most important part — is for people to look and really realize that their gardens [have] the ability to be an ecosystem," said Kaaren Pearce, the horticulture director at the Assiniboine Park Conservancy.

She looked at the list of seeds provided by Veseys and said that while a few may originate in Europe, most of the plants are from North America and none would be considered invasive here.

"Some do have a lot of seeds and so they will create a seed bank — in particular the poppies, but that's not a bad thing. They're really small so if you don't like them, take them out," Pearce added.

The park makes a concerted effort to develop and maintain pollinator-friendly areas, including areas around the Butterfly Garden, the English Garden within the Leo Mol Sculpture Garden and other areas around the edges of the park.

Pearce said supporting pollinators isn't just about flowers and pollen — it requires plants that have good leaf litter, places for pollinators to winter and food sources for young insects.

She said pollinators include more than honey bees and that supporting wasps, moths, butterflies and even some birds is important.

Bees please 

Rhéal Lafrenière, an apiarist with Manitoba Agriculture, said the bulk of bees in the province rely on agricultural areas. But he said a rise in urban beekeeping and campaigns encouraging people to support the pollinators are good things.

"Having an abundance of nectar and pollen-producing flowers, all the way through the year, is only going to fall in favour of the bee. It has a fairly high need for pollen and nectar, basically from spring all the way to freeze-up," said Lafrenière.

He estimates there were 102,000 bee colonies heading into this winter in the province — the most since the 1980s. Ten years ago there were approximately 80,000 to 85,000 colonies managed in the province.  

While the overall health of the colonies seems to be stabilizing now, Lafrenière said it hasn't been an easy decade.

Some loss can be expected in bee colonies each winter — a 15 per cent loss is typically considered a reasonable number. Since 2007, there have been eight years where losses were over 20 per cent, and in 2013 there was a 46 per cent winter loss.

The rate of bee mortality was very problematic and coincided with the colony collapse disorder seen in other countries, but that wasn't cited as a primary reason for the losses here in Manitoba.

"Thirty per cent is a hard number to come back from. At those losses you get the sense that the sustainability of the industry would be at stake," said Lafrenière.

While this winter's warm and deep-cold cycles can pose challenges for bee colonies, Lafrenière said the late fall was favourable for them, and that most of the colonies started wintering in very good condition.

Lafrenière also said thanks to urban beekeeping, there were 30 per cent more beekeepers last year than a decade ago and he expects interest to keep buzzing.

While there are over 100,000 colonies now, Lafrenière suggests the province could easily handle twice that number.

Pearce said that people can help bees in their own gardens and yards by minimizing pesticide use. She also recommends planting things that are local, good pollen producers and that flower throughout the season.

She also encourages people to leave dandelions up for a bit in the early spring, as they are the first point of pollination for many insects. She says plucking them by hand before they seed is the best way to get rid of them after they've been useful.

For anyone wanting to help pollinators with local plants, Pearce recommends winging your way to the Living Prairie Museum, or retailers that specialize in plants that originate in the Prairies, for more information.

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