Tag Archives: ants

The Gardeners of the Garden of Ireland

It’s impossible to underestimate how important ants are to any ecosystem, but in Wicklow and the rest of Ireland they could just about be described as the maintainers of the ecosystem. Last week there was a mass eruption of Black Garden Ants (Lasius niger) in Wicklow and Swifts, Swallows, House Martins and Sand Martins were swooping low over the countryside, joined by Robins, Blackbirds, Spotted Flycatchers, Grey Wagtails and Stonechats, among many others. And I got a photo I didn’t expect when a mating pair of these ants landed on a picnic table in front of me.

14782686681_899467ced1The male is tiny, but somehow contains enough sperm to fertilise the huge female for the remainder of her long life (several years). He dies soon after mating. This single female will bite off her wings having successfully mated, and find a suitable place to build a nest. Her children will eventually number in the thousands, if not hundreds of thousands.

So much is happening now as July draws to an end that I’m going to have to publish a lot, so expect more very soon.

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.