Dozens of endangered African penguins killed in apparent bee swarm

Officials in South Africa found more than 60 endangered African penguins dead Friday with multiple bee stings at a colony along the coast near Cape Town.

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In a statement, officials with South African National Parks said 63 penguins died between Thursday afternoon and Friday morning at the penguin colony on Boulders Beach.

“No external injuries were observed on any of the birds,” the statement said. “Preliminary investigations suggest that the penguins died because of being stung by a swarm of Cape honey bees.”

Honeybees die after stinging, and officials said they found “many dead bees at the site where the birds had died.” Another penguin was also found dead with multiple bee stings Friday on nearby Fish Hoek Beach. Tests were being performed to determine if diseases or toxins contributed to the deaths.

Officials said the deaths were highly unusual.

“Usually the penguins and bees co-exist,” Dr. Alison Kock, a marine biologist with South African National Parks, told BBC News. “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 (become) aggressive.”

In an email, Kock told The New York Times that officials had “never had a problem like this before.” She said the dead penguins had been stung around the eyes and on their flippers on areas not covered by feathers.

“The feathers over the penguin’s body are densely packed and it’s unlikely the bees’ stings could have penetrated through these feathers,” Kock told the Times. “On the other hand, the skin around the eyes and flippers have no feathers and the stings could penetrate in those regions.”

African penguins are an endangered species undergoing a rapid population decline, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The birds face threats mostly from food shortages attributed to commercial fishing and environmental fluctuations. They are found in southern African waters and breed in parts of Namibia and South Africa.