Bee Swarm Kills 63 Endangered Penguins in ‘Fluke’ Occurrence

Bee Swarm Kills 63 Endangered Penguins in ‘Fluke’ Occurrence
An African penguin comes out of the ocean at Boulders Beach, South Africa, in this file photo taken on August 27, 2015. (Image: Schalk van Zuydam, AP)

Park rangers in South Africa are investigating a bizarre incident in which dozens of endangered African penguins appear to have been killed by honey bees.

The incident happened sometime between Thursday September 16 and Friday September 17, according to Table Mountain National Park and as relayed by the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) on its Facebook page. The 63 dead penguins belonged to the Boulders African penguin colony in Simon’s Town, south of Cape Town. The colony consists of around 2,200 endangered African penguins (Spheniscus demersus).

“Losing over 60 healthy and most likely breeding, adult African penguins is quite a blow for the Boulders colony, and the species that is already in trouble,” said SANCCOB. The conservation group said rangers will now have to monitor nests in the area as “some of these birds would have had eggs and chicks, and one partner often can’t supply sufficient food or leave the chicks alone.” Some chicks might even need to be hand-reared, “so we’ll keep a watchful eye, as always,” said SANCCOB.

No further penguin deaths have been reported, but park rangers are continuing to monitor the situation. The penguins are a local tourist attraction, as people can observe them from up close.

The ongoing investigation into the penguin deaths includes officials, expert advisors, and veterinarians from South African National Parks (SANParks), SANCCOB, and the City of Cape Town. Post-mortems on the birds showed no external physical injuries, but all penguins suffered from multiple bee stings. Some dead bees were also found at the site where the penguins died.

The going theory is that the penguins were attacked by a swarm of Cape honey bees. Biological samples taken from the penguins are being tested for other signs of toxicity and diseases to rule out other potential causes of death.

Geographical range of living African penguins.  (Image: ICUN) Geographical range of living African penguins. (Image: ICUN)

“This is a very rare occurrence,” David Roberts, a clinical veterinarian with SANCCOB, told AFP, via The Guardian. “We do not expect it to happen often, it’s a fluke.” To which he added: “The penguins…must not die just like that as they are already in danger of extinction. They are a protected species.” Roberts said that tests showed bee stings around the penguins’ eyes.

African penguins are listed as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List. Their current population consists of 41,700 individuals, but a decreasing population trend has seen their numbers fall by 80% in the past 50 years. Threats to this species are many, including oil and gas drilling, fishing, diseases, pollution, and climate change.