Notes from the Retreat, December 2015

Pirates and Logwood Wars

The colourful history of Belize is steeped in stories of pirates, wars, exploitation and political shenanigans.

The country is the home of the Maya people famous for their huge stone temples but who also had developed a sophisticated system of water-based agriculture and had a deep knowledge of solar cycles and their effect on man. They were a peaceful people, easy prey to the colonial powers.

Prior to the middle of the 19th century, Belize was ruled by the Spanish who took little interest in colonizing the country as it did not possess gold and there were not many people living here to convert to Christianity.

In the 17th century Scottish and English pirates took advantage of the lackadaisical attitude of the Spanish and entered the Caribbean with an eye to attacking Spanish galleons for the gold they had pillaged from surrounding countries within their vast empire.

In 1670 the Spanish government persuaded their British counterparts to end the piracy whereupon the unemployed pirates began to pillage the country of its mahogany and logwood timber instead. The hard mahogany was valued for making ships, house beams and furniture while the logwood contained purple and red dyes valued for the robes worn by royalty, the priesthood and for the booming fabric industries in Britain.

Concurrent with the ex-pirates indiscriminately exploiting the forests of Belize of its valuable timber resources, British interest in the Caribbean was increasing and its navy began actively protecting the loggers from the Spanish while, at the same time, reassuring Spain that Belize was still a Spanish possession. This fiction was eventually exposed when, on September 10th 1798, a British expeditionary force defeated the Spanish armada off St. George’s Caye. Belize officially became a British colony 60 years later and the battle of St. George’s Caye is still celebrated today.

The pirates-turned-loggers seemed to have cut their way through Belize’s forests fueled mainly by alcohol. In fact many people have remarked that the local creole language sounds like the speech of a drunken sailor. Whatever the truth of that might be, the loggers left piles of old bottles of all sorts in the bays and at every logging site inland.

When we were cleaning out an old hand dug well on the Retreat to provide our gardens with irrigation water, up with the marl and stones came masses of pieces of old bottles from the pirate days. There was only one whole bottle but the bits showed that the pirates brought in a wide range of bottles of different sizes, shapes, colours, and purposes.

American archeologists are not only showing interest in the Retreat’s ancient Maya village complex but also in its collection of old bottles. One of the undergraduates in the archeological team that visited us recently is interested in including the data on the bottles into her thesis.

— H.A.E.

Notes from the Retreat, October 2015

The Challenge of Living with Leaf-Cutting Ants

The leaf cutters on the Retreat are red and about 4mm long. They are a challenge in the garden on three counts: they can strip the leaves off a tree overnight, have a fearsome bite, and can nullify our efforts to attain a practical level of food self-sufficiency. Each ant can carry up to 12 times its own weight and they can attack in their thousands. They mostly forage at night and we can wake up to the sight of a completely defoliated tree or a bed of vegetables torn to shreds.

A nest can have several queens each with her army of suppliers foraging out up to several hundred yards but always in different directions so they do not encroach upon each other’s happy hunting grounds. They store masses of green material underground where it ferments to produce a fungus that they feed upon. Diseases are prevented by good waste management. Decomposing plant material and dead ants are piled in one place away from the food either underground or outside the nest.

The culprits are easy to detect as the constant flow of little feet leave a well-worn trail leading from the damage to their underground nest.

Everything in nature has its purpose and fits snugly together into stable eco-systems. Some ants control harmful insects, some recycle dead wood into soil nutrients, but the leaf cutters condition the soil directly through making tunnels through it and by adding vast amounts of organic matter. Many insects, birds and mammals depend upon ants as a source of food. Since they are an essential part of the tropical ecology, and the Retreat is a Nature Reserve, our task is to control ant numbers and their foraging directions without eradicating them entirely.

The most environmentally friendly strategy we have been able to devise so far is to sprinkle agricultural lime on any trail leading into the garden and the ants have soon disappeared. We think that what probably happens is that the ants carry this lime back to the nest on their feet and it upsets the acid/alkali balance in their food chambers. We don’t know if the ants die or move off to another location but we minimise the damage by targeting only those trails coming into our growing area. Fortunately we do not have to do this often, maybe once every two years.

— H.A.E.

Notes from the Retreat, July 2015

How the Cowbird Saved the Day

If you look at our letters from Belize nos 43 and 44 you will see an ongoing record of a Hooded Oriole’s nest that was parasitized by what we now know to be the Bronzed Cowbird. Our friend Adam told us this wonderful story from the ancient Maya.

The Maya people had been going through hard times. There had been a long drought, crops were failing and the lands were dried up. The God, Itzamna, warned the people that there would be a fire through the lands and all the birds were given the task to collect seeds from every species of plant and tree to prevent total loss. Each bird was to choose which plant it thought was the most important and the Cowbird decided that as the corn was the staple crop of the people, the very essence of life, it was by far the most important seed to preserve.

It is said that at that time the Cowbird was most beautiful with glorious colourful plumage. When the fire started, unconcerned for herself, she prayed to Cosmic Bird, the resplendent Quetzal, for courage to fulfill her dangerous task. Emboldened by the help from Quetzal she braved the raging fire and managed to salvage the seed but in the process she lost her beautiful feathers.

All the other birds applauded her and told Itzamna of her immense courage. He asked them what they felt should be her reward and after giving it some thought they replied that henceforth the Cowbird should no longer have to build her own nests but should be allowed to lay her eggs in the nests of the other birds and they would tend and raise her chicks.

So that is how it is that we came to be witness to an extraordinary event in nature.

Today the Cowbird is plain brown, gone the glorious plumage.

Notes from the Retreat, June 2015

African Bee Problem

Bees are so important to the environment that we do all we can to protect them but sometimes there is a clash of interest, especially since the local bees mated with the more aggressive African bee. I am told that the local bees were once so docile their hives could be placed safely in gardens in built up areas but had to be removed once the new strain took over. The problem is apparently that the bees that guard the hive now patrol a wider area and attack anything they consider threatening.

Bees are so important to the environment that we do all we can to protect them but sometimes there is a clash of interest, especially since the local bees mated with the more aggressive African bee. I am told that the local bees were once so docile their hives could be placed safely in gardens in built up areas but had to be removed once the new strain took over. The problem is apparently that the bees that guard the hive now patrol a wider area and attack anything they consider threatening.

Last year a swarm decided to nest under the north eaves of the house but remained only two weeks before abandoning the location, leaving behind half-finished honeycombs.

The craftsmanship that goes into the perfectly constructed cells was a marvel to see at close quarters. A comb consisted of two layers placed back to back in pairs with the centres offset so that the sidewalls of one layer of cells acted as bases for the cells in the other layer.

Swarms can consist of up to 50,000 bees. This year a large swarm decided to nest in the first floor beams on the south side of the house. We co-existed happily with them for a few weeks but they started to attack us when we began to re-varnish the veranda railings just above the nest entrance. Soon they were attacking us anywhere on the veranda and a good distance into the garden. They had to go.

Of course we were not about to poison them and tried the old country method of smoking them out.

The 10 gal drum in the photo has a few oily rags and coconut shells in the bottom. It was lit and hoisted up to the entrance to the bees nest. Within minutes the swarm left the nest and headed eastwards into the forest with an angry roar, leaving only a few stragglers behind.

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