Category Archives: Life

Irish Wasps

Although all wasps seem to look alike there are actually 6 species of social wasp in Ireland. First the Vespulae – these are the ones that cause most nuisance and particularly the first two blaggards:

  • Vespula vulgaris (Common Wasp);
  • V.germanica (German or European Wasp);
  • V.rufa (Red Wasp);
  • V. austriaca (Cuckoo Wasp). V.austriaca is known as the Cuckoo wasp because it is an obligate parasite of V.rufa!

Then there are the ‘long cheeked’ wasps – Dolichovespulae:

  • Dolichovespula sylvestris (Tree wasp)
  • D. norvegica (Norwegian wasp)

The most numerous are the Common and German wasps and they are very similar to look at. To decide which is which you have to look them in the eye and examine their facial features. The Common wasp has an anchor shaped black patch on the front of its face while the German has an arrangement of 3 dots. Also, the black bands are wider on the Common wasp. Great photo’s here.

Both species mostly build nests underground however they will go into roof spaces but this habit is more often seen in the Common wasp. During the course of the year they will rear between 6,500 and 10,000 workers, 1,000 queens and 1,000 males. Towards the end of the summer the old queen starts to lose her power and she goes off lay. This presents the army of workers with a problems – they have spent the summer gathering insects, chewing them up and feeding them to the larvae. In return the larvae would secrete a sugary syrup which the workers take as food. When the larvae run out the workers have to find another source of sugar and end up throwing their weight about in beer gardens and kitchens. And of course creating problems for the bees.

The other two Vespulae species are less of a problem for humans or bees because their life cycles are different to those above. The Red wasp has a similar anchor shaped black patch on its face but is easily distinguished from the others by the reddish band on the upper abdomen. It builds a much smaller nest and seldom in an urban setting. It is also very much less aggressive and is (apparently) reluctant to sting.

It is parasitised by the Cuckoo wasp, the queen of which moves into the nest as soon as the first workers are up and running. She kills the Red queen and forces the workers to look after her brood which she sets about laying in the cells built for the eggs of her predecessor.  They rear only males and new queens – because they use the Red wasp workers as slaves and do not need their own workers. Isn’t that awful?

The other two also build much smaller nests and although the Tree wasp can be very aggressive they seldom cause problems like the first two. The Tree wasp tends to suspend its relatively small nest from trees and shrubs but it will also nest in relatively small cavities. The Norwegian wasp also builds a small nest in trees or shrubs often quite close to the ground.

The colonies of all of the above species break up at the end of summer and only the new queens overwinter by hibernation. It’s surprising how often wasp queens can be found hibernating inside the hive roofs. In spring they wake up and begin to build their nests. They lay their eggs and they feed the brood themselves until eventually they have workers on the wing after which, the queen lays eggs exclusively and the workers tend the brood. The workers are all female and they all sting – the sting is an adapted ovipositor. The males, which emerge later in the year have no sting. Learn the difference and impress your friends. The very large wasps to be seen on the Cotoneasters early in the year are the queens.

Copyright ©, 2014. All Rights Reserved.



Honey, Healing and Hayfever

Many hayfever sufferers find a daily dose of local honey to be helpful in controlling their symptoms but how can this bee?

Composition of Honey

Honey is a complex mixture of sugars dissolved in no more than 20% water. So long as the water content is below 20% honey is not readily metabolised by bacteria or fungi including yeast.

The sugars make up 97% of honey excluding water. The 3 main ones are dextrose, levulose and sucrose but there are also other lesser known ones such as kojibiose, isomaltose, nigerose, ab trehalose, gentiobiose, laminaribiose, meleziotose, maltotriose, turanose, 1-kestose, panose, maltulose, isomaltotriose, erlose, theanderose, and O-a-D-glucopyranosyl-(1->6) -O-a-D-glucopyranosyl-D-fructose… the list goes on through about 25 or more in total.

The remaining 3% comprises minerals, trace elements, vitamins, proteins and enzymes and pollen.

So what exactly is responsible for the healing?


Apart from being a healthy alternative to sugar it has curative benefits including antibiotic properties which can be effective in treating sore throats, skin complaints and open wounds such as ulcers. There is also some evidence to show that if honey is applied to burns it will help them to heal. I personally know a beekeeper whose daughter was badly burned as a child. The surgeons told him his daughter’s arm would be scarred for life. He was the son of a long line of beekeepers and did not accept this; he knew a recipe for a burns remedy including honey and beeswax and he applied this remedy to his daughter’s burns daily. The result was that the child’s wounds healed without scars in a few short weeks.

The observable antibiotic activity in honey is mostly due to the activity of the enzyme glucose oxidase which is probably the most important enzyme in honey – it originates in the pharyngeal glands of bees so it is added by the bees and therefore must have some purpose. Its effect is to oxidise glucose to gluconic acid a reaction which launches a two pronged attack on bacteria. The creation of gluconic acid contributes to the background acidity of honey which in turn has a preservative effect by suppressing the growth of bacteria. But there’s more – a by-product of this reaction is hydrogen peroxide which is a powerful antibiotic. The reputation of honey as an antibiotic is due mostly to the action of hydrogen peroxide.

Glucose oxidase can withstand temperatures up to 60 degrees centigrade after which it will become permanently denatured and no longer chemically active – effectively a dead molecule. Mass produced honey is routinely heated to over 75 degrees to pasteurise it. Pasteurisation is not necessary so long as honey is ripe. Beekeepers know this and only warm the honey sufficient to run it through a fine cloth to remove debris. Pollen and colloids pass through the cloth.

Manuka honey, which is a produced in New Zealand by bees foraging on the Leptospermum scoparium, has an additional active ingredient methylglyoxal and it seems to have more pronounced antiseptic activity than other honeys. However, recent studies in Sligo have produced comparable results using Irish honey and in Scotland, honey from Portobello Community Orchard has been found to have antibacterial activity similar to that of Manuka.


Hayfever is a terrible thing to bear if you have it. Some people believe that a daily dose of a tablespoon of local honey will help, the rationale being that the honey contains the pollens of the local flora and therefore if it is eaten regularly – the exposure will de-sensitise them. Some people swear by it although there is little scientific evidence to prove it. It is worth a try, it can do no harm and at the very least – it’s something nice to eat.

However, if your hayfever comes on late in the summer the chances are that you are allergic to grass pollens in which case no amount of honey will help as grasses are wind pollinated and not visited at all by bees.

Copyright ©, 2014. All Rights Reserved.

Scottish Flummery Recipe

According to Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary of 1901 Flummery is an ‘acid jelly made from the husks of oats’ and water but it has since come to mean ‘an empty compliment or anything insipid’. A recipe for traditional Flummery seems to bear this out, with its description of a rather flaccid, glutinous dish, resembling porridge but with the oats carefully removed. Continue reading Scottish Flummery Recipe