Saturday, September 19, 2015

Musings about Beekeeping, Bee Art, and Jicaro Trees

I never want to buy a t-shirt or other factory-made trinket as a souvenir when I travel. I want something a bit different, preferably made by a local artisan with local materials. These engraved “calabashes” were what I found during my last Farmer to Farmer mission to Jamaica—and the local artisan customized some for me with bees.

A local Jamaican artisan with his engraved calabashes, with fish, flowers, designs and, in my case, bees.

I was based out of a small fishing village on the north coast of Jamaica during my time there as a volunteer with this Partners of the Americas training program. This was in July 2014, my third trip to the island. Tourism is a major income source for the island but Strawberry Fields was slightly off the main tourism track. It’s a little corner of Jamaica that the main highway along the north coast bypasses.

The village has a lot of the charms of the real Jamaica. But it still had its local artisans catering to the occasional tourist. They make jewelry out of coral or coconut shells or carve drift wood into different figures. The boys at the farm where I stayed learned to weave baskets from vines.

I first saw these bowls at the little “restaurant” on the corner above the farm. I knew right away that I needed to buy one. I chose the calabash with the yellow fin tuna as my first, appropriate since we were right on the ocean. 

But in talking with this local artisan, I found out he would carve whatever I wanted onto the bowl, including bees (and a little message for my wife!). This made it even better. I ended up bringing four different ones home.

The bees are a bit “rustic” but that’s okay with me. It’s the artist’s vision of a bee. It’s one of the charms of these calabashes. 

Lots of the trees in Jamaica are also found in Central America, and this was not an exception with the one from which the calabashes grow. They are actually very common in the area where I live in Honduras, preferring the normally hot, dry climate of the valleys here. If there is a tree emblematic of my town, it would be this, which Hondurans call jícaro or morro (Crescentia alata).

There are two types of jícaros en Honduras—one has large fruits which are used to make a traditional bowl or guacal. The other variety has smaller fruits that are turned into cups. The fruit has a very hard outer shell, almost like wood which makes it appropriate for this. The people here in Honduras will cut them open, clean out the seeds and then scrape or sand them to a finish. 

It is very common to see these bowls and cups used in the “atoleras.” These are small roadside stands that sell a traditional Honduran corn porridge. It comes in both a sweet and sour variety. Using “guacales” is the traditional way to eat your atol.

An “atolera” along the highway to my town and its open-air kitchen. This corn porridge is eaten in the traditional “guacales” made from the fruits of the jícaro tree.

It is rather appropriate that the calabashes ended up as one of my souvenirs since the tree actually plays a part in my Honduran beekeeping—both as a nectar and pollen source for bees but also as a favored tree for capturing swarms.

As far as trees go, the jicaro is a bit different from the norm. It doesn’t have a nice tree shape. Normally it is rather twisted with the branches crossing back and forth. The leaves seem to come straight out of the branches in small groups, covering it from the beginning to the end. The flowers and fruits often grow straight out of the branches and even the main trunk.

The tree has a very strong smell when blooming. There is a hint of a grape or raisin smell to it. Most people simply say it stinks. My fifth-grade students wrinkled their nose when I asked them one day if they liked the smell. This distinct odor permeates the area around the tree. I actually like the smell, but I may be biased since it means nectar for the bees.

This is one of those trees from which I never see honey. It usually blooms right before the rains begin in June, marking the end of the honey season. If the bees make anything from it, the honey stays with them for the dearth period. One lady from the hot, dry southern part of Honduras, where the trees are even more common, said it tends to have a dark color.

The bees absolutely love these big fleshy flowers. The whole tree often sounds like it is alive with the buzzing of all the bees that usually come to work the flowers. This happens early in the morning and then again late in the late afternoon. There is very little activity during the day. The flowers seem to be so appetizing to the bees that you can also find them on the ones that have fallen to the ground.

Looking for a bit of sweetness—an Africanized honeybee and a native stingless bee on jícaro flowers. Even though the rain had knocked the majority of the mature flowers to the ground, bees still covered them, looking for something to forage.

The ground littered with jícaro flowers. There were as many bees visiting the flowers on the ground as there were with the flowers in the tree. The flowers are attractive to both Africanized honey bees and native stingless bees.

Jícaros are also a preferred place to hang trap hives in valley. I have really good success capturing swarms in them. There are certain trees that always seem to work well for hanging swarm traps. A bonus is that jícaros are often easy to climb—something necessary for a big guy like myself (as boys, my brothers were the tree climbers. Not me. Frustrating when they would taunt me from up above.) The abundance of criss-crossing branches makes this easy.

There is also an occasional swarm that I get to shake out of a jícaro.

A swarm in the jícaro tree of a local dairy farmer—this was an easy one to get down. He had an ox cart nearby which we put under the tree so I had something to stand on. No climbing this tree. I shook the bees into a cardboard box and they all marched/flew into it.

A trap hive hanging high up in a jícaro tree. Usually I hang them a bit lower but since there were cows in this pasture I decided to put it up a bit higher to avoid possible problems when a swarm arrived.

Jícaros are usually left in the pastures while other trees are eliminated. They provide some shade for the cattle but the cows also will eat the innards of the fruits when broken open. 

People also eat the little heart-shaped brown seeds, sometimes right as they are after washing and drying them. They are also the key ingredient for horchata, a traditional Honduran beverage. Water is added to ground morro seeds, rice and cinnamon. The liquid is strained out, sweetened and then further flavored with a bit of lemon rind.  You can add cacao and milk to make it a bit more special.

Occasionally my wife will make a type of trail mix, toasting morro seeds, squash seeds, grated coconut and a local version of almonds. It’s topped off with some raisins.

Morro seeds in a small bowl made from the same fruit. A ring is made from banana leaves so it doesn’t tip when set down. The seeds can be munched on raw after drying them or used as the key ingredient in horchata, a traditional Honduran beverage that is also made with rice and cinnamon.

Morro seeds in a small Honduran supermarket.