Tag Archives: nature

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.





Wasps and sting treatment

From now, in mid-August, until the end of September wasps will be around in fairly large numbers. What usually happens is that the nest populations grow steadily over the summer, and by autumn there has been a population explosion leading to too many wasps in most nests. There simply isn’t enough work to go round, so many wasps find themselves at a loose end, and can spend their time foraging for food and getting into mischief. There is currently a superabundance of berries and fruit and this supports these inflated wasp populations. Although wasps don’t go looking for trouble, it is very easy to step on them or have them investigate you or your food, often leading to people being stung.

However, although quite painful, wasp stings can be very easily and quickly treated. The key lies in their venom: wasp stings are alkaloids. This means that simply applying anything acidic to the area of the sting will neutralise it. I have tried a number of acidic foods and discovered that soft drinks are the best of all. In particular Coca Cola, as it is slightly sticky and will adhere to the sting area of the skin. It works like magic, instantaneously taking the pain away. In the old days many people held a sliced onion to the affected area.

You can identify the Common Wasp by the anchor mark on the face. Although there are many very similar species each has a unique face mark, and all have a similar alkaloid venom. These ones have swarmed onto windfall damsons, which are very common in Wicklow at this time of the year.

However, you must be certain that you are applying the remedy to a wasp sting: if you apply it to a bee sting it will only make the sting worse as bee venom is acidic, which requires a different remedy.

The important thing is to identify the insect: the wasps that mostly sting are the so-called “yellow-jackets”, consisting of a number of species, such as the Common Wasp (Vespula vulgaris). There are many very similar species, but all can be identified by the markings on their faces, such as the black anchor-shaped mark on the face of the Common Wasp. But all of these wasps use the same type of sting and can be treated with acidic foods or drinks.

The important thing to remember is that these wasps can sting several times, not just once like a honey bee. Also, if you are allergic to stings always seek proper medical attention. However, while waiting for medical attention you can apply a soft drink or juice drink to the sting.

August Colours

As July progressed it became heavy and humid, the air laden with pollen from many flowers. However, this state of affairs changed in August, as it usually does, freshening as the air slowly dries out. This year August began with some rain, and a northerly wind. Soon it will settle, as August always does. Many people consider late August and early September the best time of the year, and take their holidays then. The birds which were very active in spring have their limelight stolen by gorgeous butterflies, such as the Peacock (Inachis io), and gardens, meadows and hedges hum to the whirring beats of hover fly wings.

Peacock butterfly relaxing on a garden bloom.
A beautiful, harmless wasp-mimicking Syrphus ribesii hoverfly, a very common species in August.