I Found a Hornet Nest this Morning

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Who are you, mate?

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What are you up to?

I found a hornet nest this morning, in an old woodpecker’s oak tree hole. Hornets are beneficial insects.

The main difference between wasps and hornets is their size. Hornets are larger than wasps, which is one of the main reasons why they scare some people; but hornets are really quite docile, shy creatures. Another difference is the colour. Wasps which are usually yellow and black, hornets are more orangey-red, although this does vary with each species. I think the face of a hornet is more scary than the smaller wasp, although the hornet is a wasp too.

The queen is the only member of the hornet colony that reproduces. Most hornets in the colony are workers. The worker hornets make the nest (after it has been started by the queen and the workers have developed from the eggs that she laid). Workers also feed the young and protect the colony from danger. The males mate with new queens and die soon afterwards. There are only a few males in a colony.

This is how a hornet nest occurs: The European hornet queen makes the first cells of the nest and lays a fertilized egg in each one. Around five to eight days later, the eggs hatch into larvae or grubs.

The queen feeds the larvae a paste made of her saliva and insects that she has chewed. She continues to make new cells and to lay eggs.

At about two weeks of age, each larva makes a silk cap to fit over the top of its cell. Inside the sealed cell the larva turns into a pupa.

Inside the pupa, the young hornet changes into an adult worker bee. The worker then emerges from its cell and takes over the jobs of building the nest and feeding the larvae.

The larvae release a sweet secretion to feed the workers. The secretion contains amino acids and sugars. It provides the workers with energy and encourages them to keep feeding the grubs.

Once enough workers have emerged from the pupae, the queen’s sole job is to lay eggs.
European hornets fly during the night as well as during the day to collect food.

The Future for Ragwort Munchers

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Cinnabar caterpillar consuming ragwort leaves

What’s the problem in letting ragwort grow unmolested in a field? Ragwort has gained a reputation, bordering on the extreme, as a killer of grazing animals. Is this reputation justified?  I think not! I’ve heard it said that ragwort will completely invade a field if left unchecked. Well…will it? Yes! In a field where the ground conditions are right, ragwort can flourish.

I like ragwort! I like that ragwort is a top ten nectar producing plant. I like its myriad of bright yellow, sunny, happy-faced flowers! Am I worried that ragwort might poison the marsh pedigree herd? Well, no! I’m not one for taking unnecessarily risks either. A grazing animal will not readily eat bitter-tasting, poisonous ragwort unless it is desperately hungry, and it would have to be very desperate to eat enough to kill it. Most humans know that drinking seawater exacerbates thirst. If a person drinks too much seawater, they will likely vomit. I’ve watched marsh calves nibble ragwort, and they very quickly spit it out and perform a short dance; they are quick learners. I don’t want to risk poisoning the marsh cattle with ragwort, and I don’t want to deprive cinnabar caterpillars of there essential food plant. I accept there is a danger that cattle might eat ragwort if there is absolutely nothing else to eat, but there would be much mooing, bellowing, and dissatisfaction within the herd before this happens. There is a risk that cattle might eat ragwort if it has been cut and dried: it might be less bitter then and still poisonous. So don’t cut and leave ragwort scattered over a field, and don’t feed ragwort riddled hay. From a conservation stand point, I view ragwort as a resource for reasons specified in an earlier post. Cattle have grazed amongst ragwort for millennia: it’s not a new phenomenon.

The trick is to control ragwort by pulling it just before it seeds. But then I’ve been told that pulling one ragwort plant will leave many small pieces of snapped root system in the soil which will regenerate and produce more ragwort plants the following year. Am I being presented with a no-win situation? I don’t think so. My experience is that pulling ragwort, and disposing of it properly, out of the reach of grazing animals, reduces the number of plants the following year. I’ve seen lots of examples of fields filled with ragwort nodding in the breeze, but is this because no action is taken to control the plant growing in ground conditions that are probably absolutely right for their proliferation? Highly likely, I think!

On Wilden Marsh Nature Reserve, calves can stay with their mothers for years, and will suckle for as long as mum lets them, or until mum is pregnant again, and even then they might sneak the odd suckle when the opportunity arises. It’s the mother that teaches the calves what to eat and what not to eat, and this is how it has been for as long as grazing animals have existed I suspect.

The speed at which voracious cinnapillars are devouring marsh ragwort at the moment, might result in some of the plants not requiring pulling as they won’t be able to produce viable seeds.

Cinnabar moths, now regarded as a vulnerable species, have declined by 83% during the last 35 years according to the “The State of Britain’s Larger Moths” report.

Some Poisonous, Injurious and Invasive Plants of Wilden Marsh


Wilden Marsh is in the middle of its injurious and invasive plant growing season right now, and I’m yet again attempting to control their spread. I like to encourage as wide a range of vegetation as possible on the marsh that is advantageous to fauna and the Reserve, as long as the injurious and invasive plants can can be controlled  and the animals eating them are not being poisoned. It’s not the case that I’m trying to prevent injurious and invasive plants from escaping Wilden Marsh, its more a matter of controlling them once they get on to the marsh from surrounding areas. I’m not aware of any animals living on Wilden Marsh stupid enough to eat plants that are likely to kill them, but the risk is always present I suppose.

There are other plants on the marsh requiring care in handling, but those listed below are the main ones; at least they are the main ones that I can recall at the moment.

People ask why I always wear gloves when out on the marsh. Well, apart from protecting my hands from biting insects and many kinds of stabbing thorns and spiral viruses, they protect me from some of the following:

Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica): is one of the world’s most invasive species. Its invasive root system and strong growth can damage concrete foundations, buildings, flood defences, roads, paving, retaining walls and architectural sites. It can also reduce the capacity of channels in flood defences to carry water. Believe me, you don’t want this plant growing in your back garden, although many people do without knowing it. We don’t have Japanese knotweed on Wilden Marsh now, but we have had and it is growing close by.

Japanese knotweed has a large underground network of roots (rhizomes). To eradicate the plant the roots need to be killed. All above-ground portions of the plant need to be treated repeatedly for several years in order to weaken and kill the entire patch. Picking the right herbicide is essential, as it must travel through the plant and into the root system deep below ground level.

Himalayan balsam (Impatiens glandulifera): is extremely invasive. This balsam has been brought under control on Wilden Marsh through grazing, but it would quickly return with a vengeance if grazing was ever to cease here. Hoo Wood ridge is heavily carpeted with Himalayan balsam.

Spear thistle (Cirsium vulgare): the UK Weeds Act 1959 classifies the spear thistle as an injurious weed. Nitrogen-rich soils promote its spread. The flowers are a rich nectar source for honey bees, wool-carder bees, and many butterflies. The seeds are eaten by goldfinches, linnets and greenfinches. The seeds are dispersed by wind, mud, water, and possibly by ants; they do not show significant long-term dormancy, most germinating soon after dispersal and only a few lasting up to four years in the soil seed bank. Seed is also often spread by human activity such as hay bales. Spear thistles spread very quickly on Wilden Marsh; I cut them manually in July in an attempt to control their proliferation.

Creeping thistle (Cirsium arvense): is a perennial species of flowering plant in the family Asteraceae, native throughout Europe and northern Asia, and widely introduced elsewhere.

Like other Cirsium species, the roots are edible, though rarely used, they induce flatulence in some people. The taproot is considered the most nutritious part. The leaves are also edible, though the spines make their preparation for food too tedious to be worthwhile. The stalks are edible and more easily despined. Bruichladdich distillery on Isle of Islay lists creeping thistle as one of the 22 botanical forages used in their gin, The Botanist.

The feathery pappus is also used by the Cherokee to fletch blowgun darts.

As with spear thistles, I like to control their spread of all thistles with manual cutting and grazing. I follow the maxim: “Cut the thistle in May and it will grow back in a day; cutting in June is a month too soon; cut it in July and it will die.”

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa): the shrub, with its savage thorns, is traditionally used in Britain and other parts of Northern Europe to make cattle-proof hedges. If you are unfortunate enough to be pricked on the hand by a blackthorn, it can swell up alarmingly quickly and the puncture is likely to fester without treatment. The surface of the thorn is coated with bacteria specifically designed to cause pain and inflammation; it’s one of the blackthorn’s protection mechanisms to ward off grazing animals.

The fruit is similar to a small damson or plum, suitable for preserves, but rather tart and astringent for eating, unless it is picked after the first few days of autumn frost. This effect can be reproduced by freezing harvested sloes.

The juice is used in the manufacture of fake port wine, and used as an adulterant to impart roughness to genuine port. In rural Britain a liqueur, “sloe gin”, is made by infusing gin.

The foliage is sometimes eaten by the larvae of Lepidoptera, including the small eggar moth, emperor moth, willow beauty, white-pinion spotted, common emerald, November moth, pale November moth, mottled pug, green pug, brimstone moth, feathered thorn, brown-tail, yellow-tail, short-cloaked moth, lesser yellow underwing, lesser broad-bordered yellow underwing, double square-spot, black and brown hairstreaks, hawthorn moth (Scythropia crataegella) and the case-bearer moth Coleophora anatipennella. Dead blackthorn wood provides food for the caterpillars of the concealer moth Esperia oliviella.

I do as little as possible to control blackthorn, and I am very careful when working on or close to it. I’ve learned through painful experience, as have the marsh cattle.

Broad leaf docs (Rumex obtusifolius): broad-leaved dock is designated an “injurious weed” under the UK Weeds Act 1959. Leaves of the plant can be used as salad, to prepare a vegetable broth or to be cooked like spinach. They contain oxalic acid which can be hazardous if consumed in large quantities. Dried seeds are used as a spice. In Romania, the leaves are sometimes used as an alternative to other plants in the making of sarmale: a tea prepared from the root was thought to cure boils. Some research has shown a clear link between increasing dock populations and high levels of soil potassium, but other studies conclude that increasing the potassium status does not favour docks.

A large mature broad-leaved dock can produce up to 60,000 ripe seeds per year, and seed numbers in soil have been estimated at 5 million per acre. The seeds contain a chemical that inhibits microbial decay and are capable of surviving in undisturbed soil for over 50 years.

On Wilden Marsh broad leaf doc is gaining ground, and the more it is cut down the stronger it grows. I manually cut the plant to reduce seed spread. The marsh cattle rarely eat doc. Ideally, the doc plant and its roots should be pulled up.

Ragwort (Jacobaea vulgaris): is an injurious species and host plant of the cinnabar moth caterpillar and seven micromoths. Ragwort provides a home and food source to around 170 insect species in all: . This plant is in the top ten of nectar producing plants and a major source of nectar for at least thirty species of solitary bees and eighteen species of solitary wasps. Thirty species of invertebrate use ragwort exclusively as their food source – seven of these are officially deemed Nationally Scarce.

Ragwort is considered biennial, but acts like a perennial on Wilden Marsh, requiring constant annual pulling to control it. I try to pull them prior to it seeding. The weed is pollinated by a wide range of bees, flies and moths and butterflies. Over a season, one plant may produce 2,000 to 2,500 yellow flowers, and the number of seeds produced may be in the region 75,000 to 120,000.

Ragwort contains many different alkaloids, making it poisonous to certain animals. The danger of ragwort is that the toxin can have a cumulative effect. The alkaloid does not actually accumulate in the liver but a by product released during its breakdown can damage DNA and progressively kills cells. The effect of low doses is lessened by the destruction of the original alkaloids in the gut before they reach the bloodstream. There is no known antidote or cure to ragwort poisoning. The alkaloids can be absorbed in small quantities through the skin but studies have shown that the absorption is very much less than by ingestion.

The marsh cattle leave growing ragwort alone because of its bitter taste I suppose. I make sure never to cut the weed and to remove it by pulling only. Ragwort must be disposed of well away from the cattle, as it remains poisonous if consumed: the bitter taste might reduce during the process of drying out.

In ancient Greece and Rome a supposed aphrodisiac was made from the plant; it was called satyrion.

Common Hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium): commonly known as hogweed, common hogweed or cow parsnip, is a herbaceous perennial or biennial plant, in the umbelliferous family Apiaceae that includes fennel, cow parsley, ground elder and giant hogweed. It is native to Europe and Asia.

H. sphondylium is smaller than the more dangerous Heracleum mantegazzianum (giant hogweed), and the two should not be confused. However, it contains some of the same phytophototoxic compounds (furanocoumarins), albeit at lower concentrations, and there is evidence that the sap from common hogweed can also produce phytophotodermatitis (burns and rashes) when contaminated skin is exposed to sunlight. Care therefore needs to be used when cutting or trimming it, to prevent ‘strimmers rash’.

Giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum): the sap of the giant hogweed plant is phototoxic; when the contacted skin is exposed to sunlight or to ultraviolet rays, it can cause phytophotodermatitis (severe skin inflammations). Initially, the skin colours red and starts itching. Blisters form as it burns within 48 hours. They form black or purplish scars that can last several years. Hospitalisation may be necessary. It is said that is sap gets in the eye, it can cause permanent blindness. One giant hogweed plant popped up on the south marsh last year and a cow ate it, saving me the trouble of dealing with it. Another giant hogweed plant has appeared in the Falling Sands Nature Area.

Giant hogweed was more plentiful on Wilden Marsh six years ago, but prompt action in dealing with them quickly solved the problem. However, relax your vigilance and you find that they are popping up far too regularly for comfort.

Hemlock (Conium maculatum): is a poisonous herbaceous biennial flowering plant, a member of the carrot family, that grows to a height of 1.5-2.5 m (5-8 ft), with a smooth, green, hollow stem, usually spotted or streaked with red or purple on the lower half of the stem. All parts of the plant are hairless; the leaves are two-four pinnate, finely divided and lacy, overall triangular in shape, up to 50 cm (20 in) long and 40 cm (16 in) broad. The plant is often found in poorly drained soil, particularly near rivers, streams, ditches and areas of standing water. It also appears on roadsides, edges of cultivated fields and waste areas.

Conium maculatum is the plant that killed Theramenes, Socrates and Phocion. In ancient Greece, hemlock was used to poison condemned prisoners. Socrates, the most famous victim of hemlock poisoning, was accused of impiety and corrupting the young men of Athens in 399 BC, and his trial resulted in a death sentence. Although Socrates could have avoided death, he decided to take a potent infusion of the hemlock plant. Plato described Socrates’ death in the Phaedo.

It has been said that poisoned animals tend to return to feed on the plant. Chronic toxicity affects only pregnant animals; when they are poisoned by C. maculatum during the fetus’ organ-formation period, the offspring is born with malformations, mainly palatoschisis and multiple congenital contractures (arthrogryposis). Chronic toxicity is irreversible; though arthrogryposis may be surgically corrected in some cases, most of the malformed animals die. Such losses may be underestimated, at least in some regions, because of the difficulty in associating malformations with the much earlier maternal poisoning.

Small stands of poison hemlock can be controlled through hand removal. Plants should be dug, taking care to remove the entire long taproot. Plant parts should be disposed of responsibly, as plant parts remain poisonous even after dried. Gloves should be used when handling all parts of the plant, and hands should be washed thoroughly afterwards. Disturbance of the soil during manual control may cause the germination of any hemlock seeds in the soil, so the area should be monitored to control any new seedlings.

There is a lot of hemlock growing on Wilden Marsh.

Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea): Due to the presence of the cardiac glycoside digitoxin, the leaves, flowers and seeds of this plant are all poisonous to humans and some animals, and can be fatal if ingested.

Digitalis toxicity (Digitalis intoxication) results from an overdose of digitalis and causes nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea, as well as sometimes resulting in xanthopsia (jaundiced or yellow vision) and the appearance of blurred outlines (halos), drooling, abnormal heart rate, cardiac arrhythmias, weakness, collapse, dilated pupils, tremors, seizures, and even death. Bradycardia also occurs. Because a frequent side effect of digitalis is reduction of appetite, some individuals have used the drug as a weight-loss aid. I don’t need to do anything to control foxgloves, but it’s best not to absent mindedly nibble on this plant.

English Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta): Even the beautiful common bluebell has a sting in its tail: it’s poisonous!

Bluebells synthesise a wide range of chemicals with potential medicinal properties. They contain 15 or more biologically active compounds that may provide them with protection against insects and animals. Certain extracts, water-soluble alkaloids, are similar to compounds tested for use in combating HIV and cancer. The bulbs of bluebells are used in folk medicine as a remedy for leucorrhoea, and as a diuretic or styptic, while the sap can be used as an adhesive.

In the UK, H. non-scripta is a protected species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Landowners are prohibited from removing common bluebells on their land for sale and it is a criminal offence to remove the bulbs of wild common bluebells. This legislation was strengthened in 1998 under Schedule 8 of the Act making any trade in wild common bluebell bulbs or seeds an offence, punishable by fines of up to £5,000 per bulb.

There are quite a few so called “everyday plants” that are poisonous, but many people are unaware of the danger so don’t worry about it. I suppose ignorance is bliss. Daffodils, for instance, are highly poisonous. The world outside the safety of our homes is a dangerous place.

The Herd is Back in Hoo Brook Pasture

I managed to get the herd back into Hoo Brook Pasture yesterday, without having to call in the Rangers to help out, following the teenager incident on Tuesday night; it took me three days to do it though. When the cattle slipped out of the corral for their early morning drink in Hoo Brook Corridor, I slipped in and closed the gate on them – as simple as that!

I tried many things to entice them back into Hoo Brook Pasture, but the cattle are not stupid and were well aware of what I was trying to do. For once, the herd held the upper hand and ran rings around me – literally! It was inevitable, though, that I would overcome in the end.

I was cutting thistles in Hoo Brook Pasture yesterday, with two other Wilden Marshers, in baking heat. The cattle walked silently past us and hid out of sight in amongst the trees, at the east end of the pasture, and we saw neither hide nor hair of them all day. The presence of two strangers unsettled them. After a hard day’s work slashing thistles, we walked out of the pasture, up the ramp, and into the corral. As soon as the cattle heard the corral gate being locked they appeared, excitedly mooing and bellowing, to reclaim their ground. The teenager incident has certainly affected them. When I am working the pasture on my own, the cattle are usually milling around and getting in the way. Cattle are not the dumb animals some people make them out to be, and they should not be treated as such. When working around cattle for any length of time, it soon becomes apparent that they have admirable sensibilities, and deep feelings for others of their herd. I think cattle react depending on how they are treated. Cattle have friendships, they groom each other, they have their special ways of doing things, and they are creatures of habit. All the marsh cattle are sensitive to me – I don’t think I have enemies within the herd. Waynetta is particularly protective of me, as she is of the calves.

Once again, harmony reigns on the north marsh.