My Run-in with Icelandic Insects

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Just when I thought I could count the relative absence of insects in Iceland to the list of its charms, I had a run-in with some stinging bugs.

Last week my friend and I went for a walk in nearby Fossvogur and then over to Lake Ellidavatn, a popular spot for salmon fishing. There had been a sudden change in temperature that day and it was turning out to be a cool evening. After a couple of weeks of unusually warm and sunny weather (up to 23ºC, 73.4ºF) a mere 7ºC (44.6ºF) felt like the onset of winter. To keep warm, we walked briskly over to the lake and along the Ellidaár River.

My friend suggested we take an alternative track by crossing a small stream. From there we continued walking up along the river through a clearing in the waist-high grass. I ran up ahead as I was getting cold. Soon after, I suddenly felt a slight sting on my backside which grew quickly in intensity. I yelled out to my friend that something had stung me, not yet quite believing it to be true.

Then it—whatever it was— bit me again on the leg, and then on the other side of my behind. Having been stung three times, my view that there weren’t really any stinging insects in Iceland was proving to be wrong. My friend called out for me to run ahead, explaining that I must have disturbed a bee or wasp nest. I’m not allergic to bees or wasps but the stings were painful. Iceland was the last place I thought I needed to worry about wildlife, creepy crawlies and biting insects.

Back in Australia, insects are part of everyday life. The country has its fair share of poisonous and painful animals and insects. At the very least, they’re a nuisance. At worst, they can be deadly. There are flies, such as March and sand flies, not to mention mosquitoes, as well as ants, including the vicious fire, jumping and bull dog ants. Then there are snakes, including a large number of the world’s most venomous species, as well as spiders, sharks, bluebottles and other stinging jellyfish and hazardous marine life, while the rainforests are home to species such as the Giant Stinging Tree. I had never given the high concentration of dangerous animals and plants in Australia much thought until I came to Iceland. While traveling and living abroad, many people have asked me about it, usually while expressing interest in The Crocodile Hunter.

I was happy about the scarcity of insects in Iceland. Suddenly, walking outdoors didn’t require heavy duty boots and a constant look out for snakes, gardening didn’t require thick gloves and being on high-alert for spiders, nor did sitting in the backyard require plastering oneself in mosquito repellent.

That’s not to say that Iceland doesn’t have insects. There are approximately 1,300 recorded species, a number which is however small compared to most European countries where you’ll find upwards of 20,000 in one country alone.

In Iceland there are several kinds of bees and wasps, as I painfully found out. Lake Mývatn in the north of the country is notorious for the tiny black flies, called midges, which infest the area during the summer. According to Professor in Limnology Gísli Gíslason at the University of Iceland, the lake has among the highest density of black flies in the world with around one million per sq meter. Fleas and other kinds of insects also exist.

Iceland also has Arctic foxes, minks, mice, rats, rabbits, reindeer and a rich birdlife. While not dangerous to humans, I’ll finally admit that it’s incorrect to say that there aren’t any animals or insects on this island!

Zoë Robert – zoe_robert3@hotmail.com

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.