British conservationists have drawn up plans to repopulate the countryside with a species of bumblebee that was declared extinct here nearly a decade ago.
The short-haired bumblebee officially died out in the UK in 2000, but descendents of the doomed community live on in small pockets of New Zealand, where they were taken to pollinate red clover in the late 19th century.
If the project is a success, it will mark the first time bees have been reintroduced to any country after the indigenous population died out.
Bumblebees and honeybees have been in decline nationwide in recent years. Bumblebees have suffered a dramatic loss of natural habitat, including wild flower and hay meadows, while disease and parasites have wiped out colonies of honeybees.
Scientists at the Bumblebee Conservation Trust will visit MacKenzie County in New Zealand's south island this autumn, and spend up to two months hunting and capturing queen bees as they emerge from hibernation. The area is one of the last strongholds of short-haired bumblebees in New Zealand.
Any queens that are netted will be reared in captivity on the island, by feeding them nectar and pollen collected from a variety of flowers. The queens will have mated before being caught, and can lay enough eggs to produce a colony of hundreds of sterile worker bees. Details of the project are unveiled at the British Science Association festival in Guildford today.
Scientists hope some of the bumblebee colonies raised in captivity will grow large enough to produce a second generation of queen bees. These will be flown back to Britain during the hibernation season and could be released into their new habitat in Dungeness in Kent as early as next spring.
"It's going to be difficult, but this might be our last chance," said Ben Davill, director of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.
The short-haired bumblebee is one of two species to be declared extinct in Britain in the past 70 years, the other being Cullum's bumblebee. The insects have been hit hard by changes in agriculture, which have seen crop farmers replace nitrogen-replacing clover leys with fertiliser and hay meadows with silage.
The majority of Britain's remaining 24 bumblebee species are able to feed on a wide range of flowers, but the short-haired bumblebee is a more fussy eater and only visits a few types of flower that produce high quality pollen.
Nikki Gammans, who is running the reintroduction project, has been working with local farmers, landowners and the public in Kent to restore the habitat in Dungeness by ensuring it has enough flowers to sustain the bees when they are released. "We are doing our best for this and all bumblebee species and hopefully they can do the rest," said Gammans.
While this initiative is welcomed by all who care about our ecology, it is not going to solve the bigger bee problem, as these are a specialist species that can only survive in a limited number of spaces. We are still awaiting the answer to the desperate honey-bee decline, and no solution is readily available.