NATIVE black honey bees, previously thought to be almost extinct in the UK, have been found in Lancashire.

A study, funded by the Co-operative, has found that the species, which was believed to only exist in remote northern and western areas of the country, is doing well in the region.

The project was part of the company’s Plan Bee campaign, which aims to boost urban beekeeping and distribute wildflower seeds to provide pollen and nectar for insects.

It has found that the bees, which have evolved over the past 10,000 years to be more suited to the UK's cooler, wetter climate, may hold the secret to bringing other bee species back to the area.

Phil Ainsworth, treasurer of the Blackburn and East Lancashire Beekeepers’ Association, said the group was thrilled about the discovery.

He said: “We are delighted that the area is populated by the bee because it is the bee that is most suited for our climate and is the bee that we are trying to promote to local beekeepers. As a club we are delighted to be one of the few pockets populated by the bee.”

Honeybee numbers had been hit in recent years, with beekeepers reporting ‘unacceptably’ high losses of hives over the past few winters.

There were also concerns that the bees, which are an important pollinator, were struggling from factors including a lack of nutritious food from wildflowers and pests and diseases, as well as possible effects of certain pesticides.

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."

The honeybees were also found in parts of Londonderry, the Isle of Man, Argyll and Bute, Denbighshire, Fife, West Sussex and Cambridgeshire. John Wilkinson, a farmer at Hurst Green Farm, in the Ribble Valley, said that the return of the bees to the area was good news.

He said: “They say that if bees did go, we would be in trouble because they pollinate everything.

“If there were no bees, it would be the end of us, so they are really important.”