Native black honeybees are doing better across the UK than previously thought, according to a study which raises hopes they could help boost the insect's fortunes.
Honeybee numbers have been hit in recent years, with beekeepers reporting "unacceptably" high losses of hives over the past few winters.
There are concerns that the bees, which are an important pollinator, are struggling from factors including a lack of nutritious food from wildflowers and pests and diseases, as well as possible effects of certain pesticides.
Most of the bees in UK hives come from imported sub-species, but now research by the Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders' Association (Bibba) has revealed that the native black honeybee is holding on in parts of the UK where it was thought to be extinct.
The study, funded by the Co-operative, showed that the native bees, which are more suited to the UK's cooler, wetter climate, were found throughout the UK and not just in remote northern and western areas as expected.
The researchers looked at physical attributes of bees in 117 hives thought to be native colonies and found more than half of them had significant native characteristics.
British black honeybees were found in Londonderry, the Isle of Man, Argyll and Bute, Denbighshire, Fife, Lancashire, Preston, West Sussex and Cambridgeshire.
The findings, which will be followed up by DNA testing, will enable the breeding of more queens of the sub-species as a hardier alternative to imported honeybees - work which will also be funded by the Co-operative.
The native black honeybee has evolved over the past 10,000 years to have thick black hair and a larger body to help keep it warm in the cooler climate, and a shorter breeding season to reflect the UK summer.
Chris Shearlock, sustainable development manager at the Co-operative, said: "The results of this research show that there are far more colonies of British bees than was thought and we can now move on to support a breeding programme which will hopefully increase the number of British bees and in turn help reduce the losses experienced in recent years."
Terry Clare, president of Bibba, said: "We were pleasantly surprised to discover that there are more British bee populations than we suspected and this will hopefully persuade many more beekeepers to use British bees."
Funding from the Co-operative will support training for beekeepers with existing native colonies to help them rear queens and purchase nursery hives to support the production of black bee queens.
It forms part of the Co-operative's Plan Bee campaign to boost urban beekeeping, take action on pesticides and distribute wildflower seeds to provide pollen and nectar for insects.
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