Lowe's swarmed by bee activist protests on pesticides

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Environmental groups are trying to put a scare into Lowe's this Halloween.

Locations of the home improvement store across the U.S. and Canada have been targeted this week with protests and petitions that ask it to not be a "little shop of horrors" for bees.

The campaign, spearheaded by Friends of the Earth, is designed to get Lowe's to eliminate products and plants that are treated with neonicotinoid pesticides— the world's most widely used class of insecticide—which some consider harmful to bees.

The world's bee population has been dying by the billions in recent years, and some experts point to pesticide use as a major contributing factor.

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"We've been reaching out to Lowe's for the past year on this issue," said Friends of the Earth's Tiffany Finck-Haynes. "Finally in May of this year they did contact us but said they would follow the Environmental Protection Agency's guidelines on pesticides."

In an email to CNBC, Karen Cobb, manager of corporate public relations at Lowe's, reiterated what it told Friends of the Earth, adding "it is concerned about the loss of bees and other pollinators" and was following the latest science from "environmental groups and respected universities."

Cobb said that to meet customers' needs, Lowe's offers a wide selection of pest-control products, including organic options, and provides information to help educate consumers about using and applying insecticides.

Bees dying at alarming rate

Bees and other pollinators are essential for two-thirds of the food crops eaten around the world.

Almonds are completely dependent on honey bees for pollination.

In California, the almond industry requires the use of 1.4 million colonies of honey bees, approximately 60 percent of all managed honey bee colonies in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But bees are dying at alarming rates. In the past eight years, beekeepers around the globe have lost an average of 30 percent of their hives.

The total number of managed honey bee colonies has decreased from 5 million in the 1940s to only 2.5 million now, the USDA says.

Causes for the deaths include mites, diseases, along with something called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). The main symptom of CCD is a very low amount or no adult honey bees present in the hive.

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What causes CCD could be parasites, along with environmental and stress factors. But when it comes to overall pesticide use, the USDA says there's no proof they are harmful to bees.

And as for neonicotinoid pesticides, the USDA admits some studies have proved they are harmful to bees, but the agency contends there's 'no smoking gun' to prove they do.

But among several studies suggesting the opposite is a recentpaper from Harvard University researchers.

The study found that exposure to two neonicotinoids led to the death of half the bee colonies studied, while none of the untreated colonies saw their bees disappear.

'Safe haven for bees'

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This is not the first time Friends of the Earth has targeted Lowe's with petitions. Last February they mounted the same effort against the retailer and competitor Home Depot.

Since then, Home Depot is requiring its suppliers to label all plants treated with neonicotinoid pesticides by the fourth quarter of 2014 and is working with its suppliers to find "alternative insecticides for protecting live good and bees."

Just this month, food retailer Whole Foods issued a new product rating system that identifies pollinator protection as a priority.

Several cities in the U.S., like Eugene, Oregon and Seattle and Spokane, Washington, have banned the use of neonicotinoid pesticides. The European Union has banned three neonicotinoid pesticides.

But hopes that the U.S. government will do more ran into a roadblock this month. The Obama administration said it's delaying a report on improved government efforts to protect pollinators that was scheduled to be released in December.

And the Environmental Protection Agency announced just a week ago that it would not release a regulatory decision on neonicotinoids until 2016.

The White House did say it will direct federal facilities with landscaping to acquire seeds and plants from nurseries that do not treat their plants with insecticides, including neonicotinoids.

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When asked if it planned to cut back selling any of the neonicotinoid pesticide products, Lowe's did not reply to CNBC. Finck-Haynes said it hasn't given any indication to Friends of the Earth.

But that's not stopping the effort to get them to change, she said.

"We're still going to be calling them to get the pesticides removed," she said. "We need to create a safe haven for bees."

Update: Lowe's did respond after publication of this story, saying they are "unable to speculate about future plans."