Tag Archives: Ireland

Stings from nettles and bees

As I mentioned in the previous post, wasp stings can be treated successfully with acidic foods. However, bee stings, nettle stings and ant stings are themselves acids so they must be treated in a different way, with alkaloid/base foodstuffs or similar. To put an acidic food on these stings would make them much worse.

But almost all other stings will be acidic, and the most common of these in Wicklow come from two closly-related plants, the very common Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) and the Small Nettle (Urtica urens). Nettles are extremely important and beneficial plants, and they make fantastic fertiliser too, and support many species of insect. They are foodplants for the caterpillars of numerous species, such as the Peacock, Red Admiral and Small Tortoiseshell. But they are also a painful nuisance for us humans.

A typical Common or Stinging Nettle.

The pain is caused by unique poisonous hairs on the leaves and stems of these plants: the spiny hairs are actually made of transparent silica, or to put it better, they are hollow glass rods. When you brush off a nettle the sharp tips catch in your skin and break off causing an acid contained in the spines to pour into your flesh, causing a burning, stinging sensation. The Romans used to use nettles to treat rheumatism and arthritis with nettle stings, but personally I have found that stings to my own joints, particularly to the knuckles, cause rheumatism that can last for several days.

The toxic hairs of nettles: actually glass tubes filled with acid.

Fortunately there is a very effective traditional cure, long used by the natives of Wicklow. Wherever nettles grow you will also find large fleshy-leaved fronds of a plant called Dock (Rumex species), that can be up to 30cm long and very wide. There are many similar Dock species but they all can be used to treat nettle stings. Take a big leaf, mash it up in your hands and then rub it over the area/s stung by nettles. The effect is usually quite immediate, with the pain being neutralised. However, I have noticed that the potency of the Dock leaves depends on the time of year, but the sap is alkaloid, and this seems to be why it works so well. And it works on bee stings too.

Large fronds of a Broad-leaved Dock (Rumex obtusifolius), one of the commonest species.

Fortunately bee stings are much less likely than wasp stings. Bees and wasps differ mainly in that bees are (with few exceptions) entirely vegetarian, whereas wasps are omnivorous, taking plants, nectar and hunting and killing other insects and invertebrates. Bees tend to be very gentle insects and won’t bother you unless you attempt to harm them. Honey bees are the most volatile, usually in defence of their nests. Because the hive is so important to them honey bee workers sacrifice their lives to defend it: when a honey bee worker stings it dies because backward pointing barbs make it impossible to retrieve the stinger. When the bee flies away its stomach gets pulled out, and a disembodied muscle continues to pump poison into the sting victim while a pheremone is released causing other worker bees to go on the attack.

A mild-mannered Bumble Bee feeding on the flower spike of a Butterfly Bush. The stings of bees are acids and can be treated with the leaves of dock plants, and some household foodstuffs.

However, honey bees do not attack for no reason…you have to harm their hive, or them (to a lesser extent). And the same is true for all other bees, but other species do not die when they sting. Bumble bees live in nests usually numbering between 10 and 50 individuals, and they can’t afford to lose valuable members of their society, so each individual is capable of stinging many times over. And small solitary bees are the same, but the sting is an absolute last resort, not an offensive weapon as in the case of wasps, who use their stings to hunt prey. And big bumble bees are the most gentle of creatures, and the most easily handled of all bees.

If you have an allergy to bee stings you can’t take any chances and should always be prepared to seek urgent medical aid. Don’t take chances with your life under any circumstances. Even if these treatments I have described work to the fullest extent, it is best to get checked out by a doctor.

However, dock leaves could sufficiently delay the effects. But, if these are not immediately apparent, an alternative you can buy in the shops is baking soda. Soda is an alkali and therefore is perfect for neutralising the acidic stings of nettles, bees and ants. But make sure you don’t apply it to a wasp sting, because that would make it far more painful.

Remember, most wasps are quite big and wear shiny yellow jackets. Bees are generally very hairy and no big ones are as yellow as a wasp.





Stunners in the Undergrowth

One of the most beautiful creatures in the Wicklow countryside is the male Ring-necked Pheasant. It is as beautiful as the most exotic birds of the most far-distant jungles, and more gaudy than even the Resplendent Quetzel. The territorial call of the male pheasant is now a fundamental part of the background noise of Ireland, but it wasn’t always the case. These birds genuinely are exotic, having been introduced into Europe from southern Asia in the 18th century by hunters. And those poor creatures certainly were hunted, to the point where it’s hard to understand how it could be considered a “sport”. For example, most hunters kept copious notebooks recording the amount of pheasants they shot during their careers. Lord Carnarvon, who famously financed Howard Carter’s archaeological excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt, is said to have personally killed almost 23 million (23,000,000) pheasants! It boggles the mind. Clearly a man with too much time on his hands.

A male Ring-neck Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) at the edge of some rushes on the East Coast Nature Reserve near the village of Newcastle.

Anyhow, at this time of year the pheasants comprising the wild (naturalised) populations in Ireland can be found hiding in the long grasses of meadows, woodland and roadside verges and in the rushes around lakes and rivers in Ireland. The magnificent males are now usually accompanied by small hareems of superbly-camouflaged females. They are so well camouflaged that they can simply stand still in a field and disappear.

A hen Pheasant cautiously stalking across a field recently cut for sileage.

The Cliff Walk

At this time of year the Cliff Walk between the towns of Bray and Greystones turns into a spectacular Eden. There is an otherworldliness about it that is difficult to describe with mere words, even when accompanied by photos. Now, in June, there is a wildlife extravaganza on show, not to mention the fantastic scenery. The best way of seeing the Cliff Walk is to start in Bray, in late morning or early afternoon, after a hearty breakfast, and travel south to Greystones, in time for a late lunch or early dinner, and thereby moving with the sun so you are not constantly in the shade. This is essential for photos. In the heat of June you will need to wear a hat, sunglasses optional. The burn factor on the cliffs is equal to the Sahara, and water is as vital here too.

A 180 degrees panorama, featuring my brother Trevor on the path north (from Bray) looking east to the Irish Sea, and then the south-bound path to Greystones.

The seabirds are all breeding now: kittiwakes down near the crashing waves, cormorants on rocky outcrops along embankments; not to mention shags, guillemots, black guillemots, and razorbills.

Cormorants at their nests. The one in the foreground is feeding a very reptilian-looking juvenile, with regurgitated fish.

Soaring above all of these birds are the most spectacular cliff-dwellers of all, the Fulmars. These birds look remarkably like gulls in colouring, but their albatross-like heads and unusually-shaped and patterned beaks betray a very different lineage. Fulmars are actually petrels, true seabirds that spend most of their lives on the wing, soaring above the waves, and diving to snatch fish prey. They hav unusual pipe-like nostrils, like the radiators above the engines of World War II fighter planes, which is why they are also known as “tube-noses”.

A Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis). Photo by Trevor Connolly.

Fulmars are mostly North Atlantic birds, and Ireland is in the southern limit of their range. In June they start to pick out clefts and ledges on cliffsides on which to lay their eggs and raise youngsters. They are extremely vocal at these sites as they have to guard them from other Fulmars, nest-sites being at a premium. They nest just below and even above the Cliff Walk, singing loudly, and sounding just like penguins.

A pair of Fulmars singing at their nesting site just below the Cliff Walk. Photo by Cormac Tighe.

Meanwhile, Kestrels, Herring Gulls and the gigantic and highly predatory Great Black-backed Gull hover along the cliffs looking for an easy meal. For the Great Black-backed Gull this can also include adult birds of any species, although the dagger-like beaks of Gannets mean they are generally avoided. To deal with predators of this nature the Fulmar nestlings have a secret weapon. If anything gets too close (and this includes humans) they projectile vomit a stinking oil smelling of rotting fish. It is said to be so potent that not only can it not be washed out of clothes, but it takes days before it will come off human skin.

Probably the most unusual and beautiful birds to be seen along the cliffs are the fantastically aerially-acrobatic Rock Doves. These birds are believed to be the ancestors of the pigeons (the so-called “winged rats”) that live in cities, and they do look very similar, but are far more beautiful. Look at the iridescence of the the one in this photo, taken by Trevor.

A very beautiful Rock Dove standing on the wall that runs along the Cliff Walk. Photo by Trevor.

With all of the birds around you would think flowers would be far less noticeable, but there are several species that manage to steal some of the limelight even from these. Dog Rose, vetches and Honeysuckle form dense jungles of vegetation along the more sheltered, but sunny area of the path. However, by far the most colourful and impressive of all of the wild flowers is the Red Valerian (Centranthus ruber), which grows in masses all along the walls, cliffs and any available areas by the path, particularly in the less windswept areas.

Red Valerian between the sea and the railway line, far below the Cliff Walk. Notice that it actually produces white, red or pink flowers, all of which grow side-by-side, making for stunning colour effects.
The pink form of Red Valerian on a wall as the path begins to descend towards Greystones.

Some plants are less impressive, but can inspire quite spectacular events. One of those events you will encounter on the Cliff Walk in June is a massive swarm of inch-worm caterpillars of the Magpie Moth (Abraxis grassulariata). These caterpillars thrive on a small tree called Evergreen Spindle (Euonymus japonica), which can be found all across the cliffs of Bray Head. In June the caterpillars set out to find places to pupate, and can be seen across walls and fences on the Cliff Walk in their hundreds.

Magpie Moth inch-worm caterpillars on a fence along the Cliff Walk.

These little beauties are not the only insects of note to be seen along theCliff Walk in June. If you are lucky you may catch sight of what appears to be a sulphur-yellow butterfly. Actually, I’m only joking. It is extremely common on Bray Head. This is, in fact, a day-flying moth, the Speckled Yellow (Pseudopanthera macularia) that in Ireland is very rare outside of the famous Burren in western Ireland.

Speckled Yellow on the Cliff Walk

Closer to Greystones the massive rock cliffs give way to sand cliffs which provide a very important habitat for one of the more interesting bird species that visits Wicklow in Ireland. This species is the Sand Martin (Riparia riparia), which is very closely-related to the House Martin (Delichon urbica), that nests under the eaves of houses. The Sand Martin will only nest in holes in sand banks. The Greystones side of the Cliff Walk is probably the very best place in Wicklow to see these birds.

Sand Martin in flight over Bray Head. Photo by Trevor.

After taking a little safari between two-and-a-half and three hours over the Cliff Walk, you will find you have a very impressive collection of photographs

Trevor checking his collection of shots.