Tag Archives: Wicklow

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.





Summer of the Hummingbird Moth

This year there is a superabundance of migratory Hummingbird Hawkmoths (Macroglossum stellatarum) in Wicklow. Usually they migrate from southern Europe, but some come all the way from Africa. These beautiful moths seem to fill an identical niche in the European ecosystem to that occupied by hummingbirds in the Americas, although related species of moths that behave similarly are also found over there. Instead of a beak the moth has a macroglossum, or “giant tongue”, which looks and works just like a hummingbird’s beak. And, amazingly, the moth also has tufts that act like, and very closely resemble tail feathers! Look for them on buddleia bushes, honeysuckle, red valerian and along coasts on trefoils. An exotic and magnificent little creature not to be missed.

A Hummingbird Hawkmoth feeding on buddleia blossoms.

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.