Well, this isn’t a nice story. Apparently 63 endangered African penguins were stung to death by honey bees last week. My first thought, of course, was that the culprit was one of the more vicious African honey bees – Apis mellifera scutellata or adansonii, the cousins of America’s Africanized honey bees. But the penguins lived along the south cape of Africa and they seem to have bee attacked by a disturbed a nest of Cape honey bees, a honey bee not generally known for such cruelty.
The Cape bee, Apis mellifera capensis, is an unusual race of honey bees. It is particularly known for its ability to produce workers capable of producing female offspring. (Other honey bees have ‘laying workers’ that can only produce drones.) The Cape bee has been naturally restricted to the Cape region of South Africa. But agricultural pollination led to commercial migratory beekeeping in South Africa. This resulted in some relocation of capensis outside their normal range. Unfortunately, capensis is a social parasite – they can occupy other races’ nests and quickly replace them. Consequently, the government has divided scutellata beekeepers from capensis beekeepers with a strictly enforced demarcation line.
A second fun fact about the Cape bee lies in its centuries-old cultural connection to the area’s indigenous people. The Xhosa have a tradition of welcoming wayward swarms of Cape bees by making a tank of beer and celebrating the bees’ arrival with a few rounds. (I know Calgary swarm-collectors who have a similar tradition here in my hometown.)
According to the New York Times, the Cape bees may have attacked the Cape penguins when their nest was disturbed:
All the penguins had multiple bee stings, and “many dead bees were found at the site where the birds had died,” according to a statement from the South African National Parks. “Therefore preliminary investigations suggest that the penguins died because of being stung by a swarm of Cape honey bees.”
No external physical injuries were observed on any of the dead penguins, the statement said.The penguins migrate to the area annually. The bees found near the dead birds are native to the area, “usually coexist with wildlife” and “don’t sting unless provoked,” according to Dr. Alison Kock, a marine biologist at the South African National Parks.
The penguins had been stung around the eyes and on their flippers, areas not covered by feathers, Dr. Kock said.
“The feathers over the penguin’s body are densely packed and it’s unlikely the bees stings could have penetrated through these feathers,” Dr. Kock said in an email. “On the other hand, the skin around the eyes and flippers have no feathers and the stings could penetrate in those regions.”
Tests are underway to determine if a toxin or a disease was a factor in the penguins’ deaths, park officials said. So far, officials believe the bees’ nest was disturbed, causing “a mass of bees to flee the nest, swarm and they became defensive and aggressive,” Dr. Kock said. “Unfortunately the bees encountered a group of penguins on their flight path.”
The Cape Penguin is endangered, so the loss of sixty birds because of bee stings is serious. However, those deaths pale in comparison to what we humans have been able to accomplish. Oil spills in 1994 and 2000 killed 30,000 of the birds. Overfishing has reduced the birds’ food supply, resulting in starvation and less reproductive success. But for now, the stinging bees and sixty dead penguins are making headlines around the world.