A rare species of bumblebee that has become extinct in its English homeland has been clinging on in the South Island of New Zealand - and now the Brits want their bees back.

An alliance of four English conservation groups has begun an international mission to "rescue" the short-haired bumblebee from around Lakes Wanaka, Tekapo and Twizel, where they say it is not protected and could die out as it did in England in 2000.

The bees were brought to New Zealand on the first refrigerated lamb ships about 120 years ago to help pollinate crops of red clover, say the English conservation groups.

They want to create a secure home for the bees on farms in Southeast England then start a captive breeding programme using bees from New Zealand.

Natural England, the Bumblebees Conservation Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and bee and wasp charity Hymettus announced the two-year programme yesterday.

Queen bees will wake up in England after being flown back in cool boxes during their winter hibernation.

A Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry spokeswoman said there would be no problem exporting bees under NZ biosecurity regulations, as long as England was happy to accept them.

A 2004 MAF information paper noted that efforts were under way to repatriate British short-haired bumblebees from New Zealand stock.

Mark Goodwin, a bee expert at the state-owned science institute HortResearch, said short-haired bumblebees (scientific name Bombus Subterraneus) were the rarest of New Zealand's four introduced bumblebee species.

There was no good information on numbers but the population was likely to be stable, he said.

"It's good that we can supply them [to England]."

Only an expert could tell them apart from other bumblebees - one species of which is used to pollinate tomatoes in greenhouses in New Zealand, said Dr Goodwin.

New Zealand has no native bumblebees or honeybees (which live in colonies) but there are several species of native bee that live in individual holes in clay banks, he said.

Internationally, bee experts are concerned about a mysterious ailment dubbed colony collapse disorder (CCD), which has killed large numbers of the honeybees used to pollinate commercial food crops.

Dr Goodwin said CCD, which does not affect bumblebees, had not arrived in New Zealand but the spread of the virus-carrying varroa mite meant honeybees were already dependent on human intervention for survival.

He expected the New Zealand varroa mite to eventually develop resistance to all the methods used to treat it, as it had in parts of the United States.