Bees Kill Dozens of Endangered Penguins in South Africa

All the birds had multiple bee stings.

Boulder Beach Penguins Draw Tourists In South Africa
Boulder Beach penguin colony. Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

Dozens of African penguins were found dead on a beach in South Africa, apparently killed by a swarm of bees.

The 63 endangered birds were found at a colony on Boulders Beach near Simonstown, about 26 miles (42 kilometers) south of Cape Town, according to a statement from South African National Parks (SANParks).

The birds were transported to the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) for examinations. Samples were sent away to laboratories in order to test for disease and toxic substances.

“No external physical injuries were observed on any of the birds,” according to SANParks. “The post-mortems revealed that all the penguins had multiple bee stings, and many dead bees were found at the site where the birds had died. Therefore preliminary investigations suggest that the penguins died because of being stung by a swarm of Cape honey bees.”

A subspecies of the Western honeybee, Cape honeybees (Apis mellifera capensis) are native to the Eastern and Western Capes of South Africa. According to the South African Bee Industry Association, "The Cape honeybee tends to be a more docile bee, although can also become more aggressive when provoked."

An additional dead penguin was found about 6 miles away (10 kilometers) on Fish Hoek beach. That penguin also had multiple bee stings.

Samples are still being tested to rule out any other causes, according to SANParks.

“We are grateful to all our conservation partners, especially SANCCOB and the City of Cape Town, for assisting us in investigating this unusual event,” said Alison Kock, SANParks marine biologist. “No more dead African penguins were found on site today, and we will continue to monitor the situation."

Originally, researchers thought a predator had caused the deaths, but then tests showed stings around the birds' eyes and dead bees were found along the beach, Katta Ludynia, research manager at the foundation, told NBC News.

Rangers will monitor the birds' nests to see if they left behind any eggs or chicks that will need to be raised by hand.

"This is truly a freak occurrence. There has never been an event like this in the Boulders Beach colony (which is home to about 2,200 African penguins)," penguin expert Dyan deNapoli tells Treehugger. She helped rescue 40,000 African penguins from an oil spill in 2000 and wrote about it in "The Great Penguin Rescue."

"There have been a few instances of single penguins being stung by bees, but never a mass killing event like this before," deNapoli says. "Fortunately, the penguin researchers in South Africa don’t anticipate this being any sort of regular occurrence. And hopefully, it will just be a one-time event."

About African Penguins

African penguins (Spheniscus demersus) were classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2010. They are found along the coasts of Namibia and South Africa.

The African penguin is one of the smallest penguin species. They stand about 2 feet tall and weigh about 10 pounds, deNapoli says. They have unique, flecking markings and have loud boisterous calls that have been compared to the braying of a donkey.

"Each African penguin has a unique pattern of black feather spots on its chest and belly. Each individual retains (and can be identified by) the same spot pattern throughout their lives—even through their annual molt, when they lose and replace every feather on their body," deNapoli says.

"Because African penguins live in a hot climate, they have a bare patch with no feathers above their eyes called a heat vent, which allows excess heat to escape from their bodies. This is the area on their bodies that was targeted by the Cape honeybees. (I presume because the lack of feathers in this area allowed the bees to reach the penguins’ skin to sting them.)"

In 1910, there were an estimated 1.5 million African penguins. But habitat destruction, marine pollution, and commercial fishing all contributed to food shortages and two oil spills (in 1994 and 2000) killed tens of thousands of birds.

Over the last three decades, the number of African penguins in South Africa has dropped 73% from 42,500 breeding pairs in 1991 to fewer than 10,400 pairs in 2021, according to SANCCOB. There are also 4,300 estimated pairs in Namibia.

"I was shocked and devastated when I heard about this tragic event. The species is highly endangered and is already struggling to survive the impact of many environmental pressures. To instantly lose 64 breeding adults is quite a blow to this colony, and to the species in general," deNapoli says.

"And, on a personal level, having worked so hard to save 20,000 African penguins from the Treasure oil spill 21 years ago, an event like this feels like a kick in the gut. Whenever I hear about a significant mortality event with this species, I can’t help wondering if any of the birds that died were birds that we had saved all those years ago. I’ll be honest. It hurts."

View Article Sources
  1. "Cape Honeybee." South Africa National Biodiversity Institute, 2018.

  2. "Honeybees of South Africa." South African Bee Industry Organization.

  3. "African Penguin." The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 2019, doi:10.2305/

  4. Penguin expert Dyan deNapoli, author of "The Great Penguin Rescue."

  5. "Save the African Penguin." South African Foundation for the Conservation of Costal Birds.