The real stinger in the buzz about bees


*The original version of this story was to appear in Macleans magazine in 2016.  I am posting it with permission from Macleans.



Buzz the Bee,  the yellow and black mascot, which usually appears on  boxes of Honey Nut Cheerios,   once again vanished this past spring  leaving only a white outline  as the “Bring Back the Bees” campaign was relaunched.  In 2016, General Mills Canada first unveiled their Bring Back the Bees campaign for Honey Nut Cheerios to bring attention to the plight of Canada’s honey bees.  The strategy included free packets of  wildflower seeds  and money-off coupons for Honey Nut Cheerios for those signing up on the website.

The initiative paid off for General Mills  as their “Bring Back the Bees” campaign won multiple awards including the “Best of the Best Award”  for the best marketing  of the year at the last Canadian Marketing Association awards. The campaign had a significant impact on the cereal’s sales figures. But what was the buzz really about and did the company really deliver on its mission to save Canadian bees?  Or was it a case of greenwashing to promote sales of their sugary cereal?

Firstly,  when it comes to Canadian honey bees, they are in pretty good shape.   According to Kevin Nixon, the chair of the Canadian Honey Council (the national association of beekeepers representing over 8,000 apiculturists across Canada), honey bee hive numbers are actually increasing, not declining.    On top of it,  General Mills  uses  no Canadian honey in this cereal.  The company sources their honey from around the world, including countries such as Vietnam.  But nearly 60 tons of honey from Vietnam was  seized in June 2016 by  U.S.  authorities as it was determined it was  illegally imported from China.  Chinese honey has been seized previously due to both import duties and for containing prohibited antibiotics.

When asked about the General Mills campaign, Nixon states, “I think we should be very concerned about this as an industry.”  He expressed disappointment in  General Mills spending significant funds on  campaign components such as package changes and TV commercials  and said, “Yet this corporation has openly admitted to not using a drop of Canadian honey in their products. By and large, most Canadians want to support their domestic agricultural producers.”  Canada’s beekeepers are currently suffering financially due to the glut of imported honey.

As for the wildflower mix being distributed to promote the health of Canadian honey bees, Nicole Kimmel, Weed Specialist with Alberta Agriculture & Forestry, points out  saving native bee populations needs to be supported by planting native flowers to the area. But when she reviewed the list of wildflowers included, she says, “The problem with most of them is they are not native to most regions across Canada. The ornamentals are notorious for escaping and causing weed issues.”

Now consider that, according to General Mills, they have given away over 400 million seeds.

So what was behind the  General Mills campaign? Stats show  cereal consumption has been decreasing, about one per cent per year for the past decade. Put that together with sugar being singled out as a dietary culprit and you can see what’s happening.

Firstly with a name like Honey Nut Cheerios, you might expect the principal sweetening agent to be honey but a read of ingredient list, in which the ingredients are listed from most to least by ingredient amount, shows  sugar (and/or golden sugar) as the second ingredient following oats. Honey is way down the list as the fifth ingredient, after corn starch and just before the salt.
When asked about the actual percentage of honey contained in Honey Nut Cheerios, Stella Mok, a spokesperson for the company stated, “General Mills has a policy of not sharing its recipes publicly, so unfortunately we cannot provide you with that information.”
The campaign was indeed a success leading to a boost in sales of the cereal. It would appear that what really happened here is a case of General Mills putting a sweet spin on a major dietary stinger. The sad news is the accolades  and awards they’ve received for doing so.


What do you think about the initiative? Did you sign up to get these wildflower seeds? Please share in the comment section below.

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Categories: Rosie's Rants

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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5 Comments on “The real stinger in the buzz about bees”

  1. May 25, 2017 at 11:10 pm #

    WoW, imagine! a dab of the cheapest honey available even with shipping costs included!

  2. Pat Vanderkooy
    May 26, 2017 at 11:02 am #

    Thanks for this enlightenment, Rosie. You are Queen Bee in your hive of activity – great investigative journalism. Perhaps you can write an update in the next year or two?

    Meanwhile, let’s all keep an eye open for more news from our federal government on progress with Dietary Guidance (Health Canada) and National Food Policy (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada). More consultation on proposed policy is expected this year!

    • May 26, 2017 at 2:12 pm #

      Thank you, Pat! That is high praise — coming from you! And yes, I’m keeping my eyes open news from Health Canada!

  3. Paul Gregory
    August 11, 2017 at 3:44 pm #

    A well balanced piece of journalism… thankyou Rosie. As a professional agronomist / commercial beekeeper I always am concerned at what these large multinationals are up to with their advertising agencies.
    I believe that highway infrastructure and other public areas should be seeded down to Canadian native species as it would allow wild pollinators to migrate form region to region as well as helping migrating species like butterflies. Blasting ditches with dicamba or other broadleaf herbicides hurts all pollinators whereas judicious mowing will leave ditches free of most noxious weed species while allowing drainage to happen.
    Most American states have excellent roadside programs that result in low maintenance sustainable plantings…

    • August 12, 2017 at 7:19 pm #

      Thanks for your feedback, Paul, and for informing us about potential programs that should be looked at here in Canada. I do think that we do need to know more about these kinds of issues so that sustainability is always a consideration when programs are put in place.

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