From the outside, the Petchary family’s yard looks calm. Trees sway gently in the beautiful “Christmas breeze.” Our magnificent guango tree – almost untouched by Hurricane Sandy – stands tall and strong, draped with our purple-flowering vine. The sweet sounds of Sigur Ros (my favorite band – Icelandic post-rock), Caetano Veloso and others float from the windows on sunny afternoons.
But under the surface, conflict stirs. All is not well, and a quiet, daily struggle goes on.
Well, not always so quiet. The crack of our mosquito zapper disturbs the calm November air (how beautiful the weather is at this time of year). And it is not just mosquitoes that are meeting their fate in the metal wires of this hideously-orange made-in-China object badminton racket contraption (We are still living in fear of dengue fever, as we are getting mixed messages from the Ministry of Health as to whether it is actually on the decline, or not. Mosquitoes – not a problem).
No, it’s the bees that are the enemy, attacking us fiercely at the flank. And I know we shouldn’t kill them – I was brought up to believe you should never kill a bee – but we have actually used our weapon of choice against them in the last few days of this ongoing conflict. And it seems to have worked.
It all started with the apple tree. A friend’s mother gave the tree to us when we first moved in to this house, over twenty years ago now. It is rather symbolic of our arrival in Jamaica. It has flourished ever since, its thick green leaves harboring many birds. And then it flowers, and the entire tree comes to life with bees.It hums and vibrates with their presence. I love it.
Then the downside. We feed and nurture our hummingbirds, bananaquits (and in the winter months, our beautiful visiting warblers). The feeder hangs from a branch of the apple tree. Even our beautiful Jamaican Oriole (the “Banana Katie”) visits it regularly, although it’s a little too heavy and the feeder swings precariously. However, once the bees are on the tree, they soon discover another source of delicious sweetness besides the nectar of the tree’s sugar-pink flowers. Soon, both our bird feeders are besieged by bees – a few scouts first, then a growing cluster of furry brown bodies. The birds fly down and are immediately frightened off. Our favorite little Black-Throated Blue Warbler – a gorgeous and friendly little winter visitor – cannot feed.
We sprayed them with water from the hose, but they returned within minutes. We tried knocking them off. We unhooked the feeders and shut them away in an old wardrobe in the yard. The bees flew around in desperate circles, searching for their food source that was suddenly gone. After a few days, we brought the feeders out again. Ah! Back came the bees. We waited for the apple tree to stop flowering – but the bees still remembered that lovely syrupy feeder (they are very smart little creatures) and returned to that spot.
So, we brought out our secret Chinese-made Weapon of Mass Destruction – and used it. I am ashamed and sorry to say that we dealt with the pestiferous bees very effectively. After a brave, determined (and rather stupid) fight-back – yes, I did think bees were smart – they got the message, after a day or two. The bird feeder means instant death. The rearguard action seems to have failed and they seem to have retreated. Our warblers and quits are sipping the syrup that was always intended for them, and can move freely (some of the warblers are so tame that one actually sat down by my feet on the ground the other day and looked up at me).
I am not proud of the extreme force we used in battling the bees. It is a bit like the Israelis hitting back at rockets from Gaza; the firepower is disproportionate. But we were defending the birds’ territory. Sadly, there was some collateral damage; but such is the nature of war.
It doesn’t end there. We have also been fighting off an invasion of grackles. What are grackles, you may ask? The Greater Antillean Grackle, to be precise. Its name – and its Jamaican nickname, “Cling Cling” – suggests that it makes a lot of noise. And so it does. The grackle forces, unlike the disciplined army of bees – are a bit like those “barbarian” armies depicted in films like “Braveheart” – ragged, wild, and extremely noisy. If the grackles wore kilts, they would throw them over their heads and expose themselves. Yes, you remember that movie. Blue faces and all that.
Such is the fighting spirit of the grackles. Every day the hordes have descended, screeching, piping, croaking. They crouch on the mango tree branches. They flap their wings, throw their heads back and emit horrible, ear-piercing sounds. They push our doves off the water bowl in the front yard, and splash, making loud clucking noises. When I clap my hands at them, they cluck even louder, fly a short distance away and watch me. When I go back in the house, they start sneaking back. They are not only hoodlums, they are crafty hoodlums.
Now (again, I am keeping my fingers crossed) the grackles may be in retreat. But only because all the red berries on our palm trees are finished. Gradually, our mockingbirds (nightingales) and doves are starting to sing and coo, and even the small birds can bathe in peace.
I mentioned that we feed the birds. We give them bird seed. This suddenly created another problem: a small squadron of mice arrived. Not rats (thank God). Our dogs love chasing them, so we have some fierce warriors on our side. I actually find mice rather cute, but my husband detests them. A line of mouse traps surrounds the bird table. One evening, I heard a loud snap. A mouse had just lost its head. my husband informed me (too much information, for me). Yes, war is gory, and messy.
So, it seems as if we are slowly winning the campaign. We have had to fight off several attacks from various small creatures on different fronts. We are just trying to restore our yard to its customary harmony, you understand. We are a bit like the United Nations peace-keepers, without the pale blue helmets – but unlike them, we have actually been forced to fire shots.
There is a de-escalation of the conflict, now. Almost a ceasefire. But hostilities could flare up again, at any time.
If this occurs, in the words of the great Mozambican freedom fighter Samora Machel, “A luta continua.”
The struggle continues.
Don’t let their Hitchcockian manner scare you, grackles are just here to roost (victoriaadvocate.com)
Cape May sighting has birders atwitter (dispatch.com)
Gardens: bird feed (guardian.co.uk)