Will a wildflower seed mix from the dollar store help save pollinators?
Good intentions have a way of drawing criticism, especially when directed at a major issue. Those packets of “wild” flower seeds you walk past at your local dollar store have potential, but can they cause more harm than good?
Packets of seeds containing a curated mix of flowering plants, with labels such as “Bird and Butterfly Mix” and and “Bumblebee Buffet”, are marketed towards the fact that pollinators need our help to survive. And it seems like many people are eager to make a difference in “saving the bees”, because these seed mixes come back in stock every spring in a variety of retail spaces like hardware, grocery, and convenience stores. Their wide availability speaks to a wonderfully successful campaign in making the public aware of an existential threat that pollinators currently face.
A controversy sparked by Cheerios’ 2017 campaign to save honey bees brought my attention to this issue a bit closer. This may be old news, but they distributed free “wildflower” packets that were partially marketed to contain the seeds of a noxious invasive version of forget-me-not flowers (which they actually didn’t contain). At the time, I was working in native plant research and garden design. When coming across their scheme, I’ll admit that I signed up to receive a packet. Who doesn’t love growing more flowers?
Shortly after, I read more and more about the shortcomings of this type of product. Besides the fact that the Cheerio campaign was targeting honey bees (which is more of an agricultural issue than a conservation issue), many people versed in ecology make it seem that these seed packets could have a net-negative effect on the kind of pollinators that need the most help. Indeed, native populations of bees tend to suffer from a lack of host plants, and wind up in competition with cultivated bee populations for remaining available resources. If a native plant that a wild bee is evolved to eat from is pushed off the landscape by invasive seed mix plants, then the product definitely is working against the critters it claims to help. Though it is a challenge to find the exact source of invasive plant populations and implicate these wildflower seed mixes directly, aggressive domesticated plants escape the garden and harm natural habitats all the time. Plants such as yellow toadflax, which is listed as invasive in 14 states, and bachelors button listed in three states, are common in these kinds of generalized mixes.
If a shopper was able to identify what kind of seeds are in the mix, they could possibly try to avoid planting something they know to be harmful in their area. This hinges on a couple of things. First, not many customers will have this kind of information, or even know to go looking for it. Next, it can be very challenging to know exactly what kinds of flowers will grow from that packet of seeds. American Seed, a company that supplies wildflower seed mix packets to retailers like Dollar General and Amazon, does not even list the species of seeds included in each type of packet on their main website. Packets that do have lists are usually incomplete or inaccurate.
Marketing these seed mixes as “wild” flowers is also a bit of a stretch — most of the seeds are either from domesticated cultivars of wildflowers or are an outright decorative species that evolved elsewhere. The majority of them come from species that have become naturalized, meaning that they do not need human help to spread over time in an area where it is not native. As long as the plant is not classified as invasive, planting this type of plant in your yard isn’t bad thing — all flowers will serve some kind of function in your garden landscape. Take dandelions as an example — most dandelions did not originate in North America, but they have secured an important spot in a pollinator’s diet as one of the first sources of nectar in the spring.
Ultimately, the flowers included in these kinds of mixes won’t really be giving you or the pollinators the best bang for their buck when it comes to maintenance and the space they occupy. Especially when one or two of the more aggressive plant varieties eventually takes over the garden space and creates a mini-monocrop.
Some US seed companies have tried to take regional differences and invasive listings into account when making “wildflower” seed mixes by including plants that grow best in conditions in the East Coast Unites States, Northwest, etc. This is certainly an improvement. Increasing forage area for pollinators, even while using domesticated plants, will still relieve the pressure of limited food resources.
But what good is trying to provide food to pollinators if that food winds up being poisonous? A great number of seeds used today have been treated with a type of pesticide called a neonicotinoid — or “neonic”. By treating the seed coating with this chemical, it is taken up by the plant and becomes part of its tissues (or a systemic pesticide). This is increasingly common in large-scale agriculture for crops like soybeans and corn (see graph below), but its use is not necessarily disclosed to people who buy seeds off of the shelves.
While shoppers may be able to select for organic wildflower seed mixes online or in certain storefronts, most grocery, convenience, and dollar stores will not have this as an option. Whether seeds bought from these places were treated with neonicotinoids or not will remain a mystery, unless they are explicitly marked as organic. If it is the case that the seeds are coated in neonic, they will be poisonous for pretty much any insect that consumes it. It does seem like a seed mix that markets its ability to support pollinators should be wary of using a systemic pesticide, but people interested in helping wildlife should still keep the widespread use of neonic in mind.
There are certainly other critiques of common wildflower seed mixes, such as their use of fillers like sawdust or vermiculite in the dollar store versions. The lack of success that people have when using seed with filler may turn people away from trying more gardening in the future, but it may not just be the filler’s fault. It can be a challenge for beginners to broadcast a random assortment of seeds, and then try to figure out which sprouts are keepers and which sprouts are from the pre-existing weed and grass seedbed. I certainly used this as an excuse to never weed my wildflower garden- and I can imagine that the resulting mess would overwhelm anyone who had not anticipated that issue.
For all that can be said against the use of cheap wildflower seed mixes, I’d like to make the case that they make a great first step towards planting a true pollinator refuge. They are low cost, so the entry cost for experiential learning is not a burden to a beginner. This kind of product makes it seem like creating a natural space for critters and bugs to flourish is something that anyone with a place to plant seeds can do. It is absolutely to their credit — planting gardens that help wildlife is something that anyone with property can easily do with a little bit of preparation and research.
They act as their own public awareness campaign for the issues facing native and domesticated pollinators alike. By continuing to return to shelves and even to be offered for free, it keeps the issue in the public eye. If someone is not familiar with what a pollinator garden is, or why they might be necessary, seeing a pollinator garden seed mix, or someone who has planted one, may be a source of inspiration.
There are levels of quality for different sorts of forage area, to be certain. But some flowers in the yard of a home or a business will be better than no flowers, with the exceptions of invasive plants and those that have been treated with systemic pesticides. It is critical to increase the availability of general forage area for pollinators. Even if the flowers being planted don’t offer the most nectar and pollen for butterflies and bees, planting something in the first place is a step in the right direction. Annual and perennial seed mixes can be helpful in prepping a space for successful majority-perennial plantings, and practicing the work and art of gardening.
Once you start a garden, it keeps growing, and it brings you along with it! The only fatally wrong step is to not begin in the first place. As more people begin to consider using their land to provide food and other resources for pollinators, we need to keep the critiques of those companies that provide seeds for flowers in mind and demand improvements.
Seed mixes should continue to become more specialized for unique regions, conditions, and landscapes, and never include plants that are classified as invasive in those spaces. Systemic pesticides such as neonicotinoids should never be applied to those seeds that are supposed to grow into useful resource plants for pollinators. And while it is true that anyone who can plant a garden can help pollinators, there ultimately needs to be a larger scale plan to interrupt the many other factors at play in declining pollinator populations.