Our Burning Planet


Penguins killed by bees highlights a deeper conservation issue

Penguins killed by bees highlights a deeper conservation issue
Over 60 pengiuns were found dead at Boulder’s Penguin Colony in Simon’s Town after they were attacked by a swarm of bees. (Photo: Sanccob)

Last week over 60 penguins died from bee stings. But this ‘freak’ occurrence, that’s caught international attention, highlights a more serious issue of dwindling African penguin colonies that conservation groups say is primarily caused by limited prey availability.

Last week, rangers found over 60 penguins dead on Middle Beach, at the Boulders Penguin Colony. The penguins were killed from bee stings, after a swarm of Cape honey bees attacked them. 

Dr Katrin Ludynia, research manager at South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (Sanccob) told Our Burning Planet that the penguins were most likely attacked on their commute between the sea and their nest.

Ludynia said, “the message that we would like to get across, is that this was a freak accident. We are not worried about bees attacking African penguins. We kind of want to draw attention to the fact that 1,000s of these birds [die] every year due to other reasons.”

Sanccob said that the main threats to African penguins was the lack of food, the competition with industrial fisheries over limited resources, increasing shipping traffic, oil spills, pollution, climate change, extreme weather events, disease, predation and others, not bees.

Last Friday Rangers found the penguins on Middle Beach, which is part of Boulder’s Penguin Colony, and brought them to the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds facility. Nicole Kieswetter, research intern at SANCCOB examines one of the penguins (Photo: Sanccob)

This was not a regular occurrence. Looking back at their records, Sanccob found only two occurrences of bee stings in the past 20 years, and they were individual cases (one penguin being stung and dying).

Ludynia said that the fact that the species is so endangered is what makes the death of the 60 birds so much more tragic than if there was a healthy African penguin population. 

“But we are now down to about 10,000 breeding pairs in the entire South Africa. And that’s why it’s tragic. We actually need to focus on the real issues that are threatening to African penguins. The bees are definitely  not on the radar.”

Sanccob said that over the past 20 years South Africa has lost over 40,000 breeding pairs.

The African penguin made the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of threatened species in 2010, classifying them as endangered. Ludynia said during the assessment to make it on this Red List, it was calculated that in the past 30 years, the penguin population has declined by 73%. 

Dr David Roberts, clinical veterinarian at Sanccob said that most of the stings were found around the “little patches above their eyes, where there are no feathers, red, pink patches of skin.”

The reason that they died from the stings, Roberts said, is that birds are more susceptible per kilogram to bee toxins. “They’ve been some incidents of other birds in the poultry, as well as some wild birds. So I think the most important thing is that they’re small animals, and they got a lot of stings.”

Kai Hichert, chairman of the Southerns Beekeeping Association and board member of the South African Bee Industry Organisation (Sabio), explained to OBP, “we’ve only got two honey bee species in South Africa, one is the Apis mellifera scutellata, which is the African bee, the ‘killer bee’, and the other is the Apis mellifera capensis, which is the Cape honeybee. The African bee is much more aggressive than the Cape bee. However, the Cape bee is no joke either. When those girls get pissed off they get pissed off. And that’s obviously what happened. And it starts a chain reaction.

“If you just stand in front of the flight path of the bees, you’re not supposed to be there. So they accidently fly into you, because you’re not supposed to be there, then they start buzzing you, or they accidentally sting you. Once that first sting has gone in the other bees smell that venom, venom has got a very distinct smell to it. The other bees will keep on attacking the same spot where the previous bee has actually stung.”

Alison Kock, a marine biologist from SANParks, said they are working on the assumption that a beehive in the area was disturbed, causing a mass of bees to flee the nest, swarm and become defensive.

Kock said, “Cape honey bees are naturally found in the region and usually coexist with wildlife, and the penguins. They are an integral component of the ecosystem. They live in nests throughout the region and usually don’t sting unless provoked. 

“Unfortunately the bees encountered a group of penguins on their flight path. We don’t know the origin of the bees that stung the penguins or what could have disturbed them as rangers would have recorded their presence during their regular patrols.”

Kock added, “Following the incident we did an extensive site assessment and found dead Cape honey bees on site. We also subsequently found a small colony of bees close to the site. These bees have subsequently been moved to a safe place away from the penguin colony inside the protected area of the Table Mountain National Park.”

What will happen to their breeding partners

There’s a common conception that penguins mate for life.

“They breed for life as humans do,” said Ludynia smiling, “so we do have pairs that stick together for 20 years or so. They usually split up early in their lives, if their first breeding attempt is not successful, then they will try to find another partner. Once they’re actually successfully breeding with a partner, they usually stick together.”

Ludynia explains that during the breeding season (which is historically from March and August but has now extended throughout the whole year due to a lack of prey availability and climate change), both the female and male partners alternate duties.  

So while one partner stays at the nest to either incubate their eggs or look after their chicks, the other partner goes out to sea to hunt for fish (some of which are brought back to feed the chicks). 

“But then once a partner dies, it often takes basically a year or two before the other partner might find a new partner,” says Ludynia. “So in that sense, yes, we are losing very valuable breeding pairs because the ones that have now lost their partner might not find a new partner next year.”

“So basically, there’s 120 birds affected – 60 that died and the other 60 there are now basically having to raise their chicks and eggs on their own.”

Over 60 penguins were found dead at Boulder’s Penguin Colony in Simon’s Town after they were attacked by a swarm of bees. Bees die after releasing their stings (Photo: Sanccob)

Ludynia added that Sanccob has its rangers monitoring the situation. If they find eggs or chicks that are abandoned or struggling to grow (because they only have one parent to feed and rear), they will bring them into the rehab centre to hand-rear them. 

On average, Sanccob’s Western Cape branch takes in about 1,000 African penguins and about 1,000 other sea birds. Ludynia points out that they used to admit 1,500 African penguins and that this decrease is an indicator of how the species is decreasing.

Roberts said, “I think it’s always important when talking about these apex predators like the penguins, that they’re an indicator that the ecosystem is in trouble. So I’d like to point that out. Penguin numbers are going down, they’re on top of the food chain. So I’d love to have little placards that say save the sardines, because if the sardine gets saved then a lot of other animals would benefit from it, all the other seabirds that are endangered.”

Ludynia wants the takeaway message of this incident to be that, “we have to manage the threat that we can manage, so  the population can basically deal with these fluke events. 

“It’s the same with oil spills, you know. If the population is healthy, losing a few 100 birds to oiling is tragic, but it wouldn’t kill the population. Whereas right now, if you had an oil spill, that could be the end of the species.” DM/OBP


Absa OBP

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