Sixty-three endangered African penguins were the victims of a tragic attack last week. The culprits: a swarm of Cape honeybees.
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African penguins who live on the islands and along the coast of Namibia and South Africa have already been the casualties of hunting, fishing, mining, oil and gas drilling and climate change. But this was the first time they faced massacre by bee. And it happened inside what’s supposed to be their safe space, the Boulders Penguin Colony in Simon’s Town, South Africa.
At first, investigators blamed predators. Then they noticed the stings around the birds’ eyes. The skin around penguins’ eyes is especially thin, thanks to pink sweat glands located there. One of the fallen penguins sustained 27 stings. “Seeing the number of stings in individual birds, it would have probably been deadly for any animal of that size,” Katta Ludynia of the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) told the BBC. The bees also stung the penguins’ flippers — another vulnerable, non-feathered body part.
Why the bees attacked is still a mystery. “The bees don’t sting unless provoked ― we are working on the assumption that a nest or hive in the area was disturbed and caused a mass of bees to flee the nest, swarm and became aggressive,” said Alison Kock, a marine biologist with South Africa’s national parks agency. “Unfortunately the bees encountered a group of penguins on their flight path.”
The time of death was between last Thursday afternoon and Friday morning. The deceased penguins were sent to SANCCOB for post-mortems and toxicology testing. Other than the stings, the penguins had no visible external injuries. Honeybees die after they sting. Investigators found dead bees at the scene of the crime. The penguins seem to have been a target of the hive mind. “Once a honeybee has stung something, it leaves a pheromone behind so that the target is easily located by other honeybees defending the nest,” said Jenny Cullinan of the African Wild Bee Institute, as reported by the BBC. The institute is asking nearby residents to no longer have beehives in their gardens.