Birds, Chocolate, Forests, and Allegheny College

Allegheny College students pose for a photo at BFREE during the Birds, Chocolate, Forest Field Course in May 2019. 

Written By, Beth Choate, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Environmental Science and Sustainability
Allegheny College

BFREE’s Birds, Chocolate and Forests course provided students with a real life example of the complexities of conservation within the rainforests of southern Belize. Through interactive demonstrations and presentations, field research and experiments, day-excursions, conversations with all members of the BFREE team, and exploring the surrounding environment, students developed an understanding of the relationships not only between birds, chocolate, and forests, but people as well. The complicated web of relationships that exists among efforts to conserve biodiversity and livelihoods is something we speak often about in our Environmental Science and Sustainability courses at Allegheny College. In our introductory course for the major, we make it clear to students that you will not find the solutions to environmental problems in a book. Each problem is unique and requires individuals who can critically examine the issue to devise a unique and thoughtful solution. The 2-week experience with our BFREE guides was a perfect compliment to this concept. In a country where people rely on the natural resources of the surrounding forests to provide them with medicines, food, and fertile land for agriculture, it quickly became clear that you couldn’t simply tell people to stop using the forest. BFREE  provides a unique solution: conserve the forest and grow a cash crop within the understory in an effort to conserve birds and other organisms, as well as livelihood. Jacob spoke with us about ongoing efforts to ensure that methods of cacao agro-forestry were fully understood so that local farmers could create successful farms and provide for their families demonstrating that BFREE is thinking about the sustainability of their program. The complexities of conservation also became apparent when learning about the Hicatee turtle, talking with Ernesto about traditional Mayan culture, and spending time on the coast in Placencia. This course was the perfect compliment to what we are saying in the classroom:
solving environmental problems is complicated.

Students from Allegheny College spend time in the BFREE cacao nursery. The group received hands-on experience in what it takes to make chocolate, from seed – to bean – to bar!

In order to solve those complicated problems, one must be curious, flexible, and have excellent communication and intercultural skills. Many of our students had minimal experience traveling outside of the US and very few had been submerged in a culture different to their own. When students are outside of their comfort zone, they are forced to adapt and push their own limits. It is through experiencing this unknown, whether it be using compost toilets, learning to fall asleep to the sound of howler monkeys, or discovering just how difficult harvesting cacao in the jungle can be, students were forced to overcome new challenges. After reading their final journal entries, many of our students surprised themselves. They learned that they are capable of much more than they ever thought possible. Through conversations with the BFREE staff and local Belizeans we met during the trip, worldviews were expanded and communication skills improved. For many students, this was the highlight of the trip, getting to know individuals with completely different life experiences than themselves. From an educational perspective, this is impossible to teach in a classroom or while simply touring around. BFREE provided an excellent experience for students to be completely submerged in the Belize culture, all while learning in a completely new environment.

A pile of roasted cocoa beans lay on the table. These beans have a thin, papery shell around them which needs to be removed. The students are cracking the beans open and the shell is removed in a process called winnowing. The lighter shells are blown away with fans, leaving behind pieces of pure cocoa bean, known as “nibs”.

2019 Field Season Wrap Up

We are wrapping up another incredibly rewarding year of hosting field courses at the BFREE Field Station. 2019 brought seven colleges and universities from the US and one from Belize. Altogether, just over 100 students and 20 instructors spent between 4-10 nights at BFREE. They could be found immersing themselves in the jungle hiking both day and night, working on independent research projects,  learning about the critically endangered hicatee turtle, tasting cacao fresh off the pod, swimming in the river, snacking on johnny cakes, and searching for the elusive Harpy eagle. 

Most field courses require students to work on independent research projects in order to receive an introduction to environmental field methods through hands-on learning. Students gain a basic understanding of field methods necessary to discuss and research various environmental issues. Some will come prepared with a question in mind before they arrive at BFREE, however, for many once they arrive with one sweeping view of the jungle, the possibilities of research are endless. Below are just a few examples of the independent research projects students worked on this year. 

  • 1. Are howler monkeys most active at dusk or at dawn?
  • 2. Does the height of the tree determine the size of its buttress?
  • 3. Will the trees near the river or a waterbody grow taller than the ones that are not near a waterbody?
  • 4. Will a foreign liquid throw the leafcutter ants off their trail?
  • 5. Does the higher density of insects/food source in an area coincide with a higher density of birds in that area?

A special thanks to each of our instructors that make our Faculty-Led Field Courses a success. We look forward to having you back next time! 

2019 BFREE Field Course Group Photos

The University of North Carolina Wilmington, Wilmington, N.C.

The University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Amherst, MA

Marshall University, Huntington, West Virginia

Jacksonville University, Jacksonville, FL 

Flagler College, St Augustine, FL

Independence Junior College, Independence, Belize

Allegheny College, Meadville, PA

Nebraska Wesleyan University, Lincoln, Nebraska

PHOTO HIGHLIGHTS

We would love to see the photos you took during your time in Belize. Please share them via social media on             Instagram @bfreebz or by email to contact@bfreebz.org. 

2019 Field Season Wrap Up

We are wrapping up another incredibly rewarding year of hosting field courses at the BFREE Field Station. 2019 brought seven colleges and universities from the US and one from Belize. Altogether, just over 100 students and 20 instructors spent between 4-10 nights at BFREE. They could be found immersing themselves in the jungle hiking both day and night, working on independent research projects,  learning about the critically endangered hicatee turtle, tasting cacao fresh off the pod, swimming in the river, snacking on johnny cakes, and searching for the elusive Harpy eagle. 

Most field courses require students to work on independent research projects in order to receive an introduction to environmental field methods through hands-on learning. Students gain a basic understanding of field methods necessary to discuss and research various environmental issues. Some will come prepared with a question in mind before they arrive at BFREE, however, for many once they arrive with one sweeping view of the jungle, the possibilities of research are endless. Below are just a few examples of the independent research projects students worked on this year. 

  • 1. Are howler monkeys most active at dusk or at dawn?
  • 2. Does the height of the tree determine the size of its buttress?
  • 3. Will the trees near the river or a waterbody grow taller than the ones that are not near a waterbody?
  • 4. Will a foreign liquid throw the leafcutter ants off their trail?
  • 5. Does the higher density of insects/food source in an area coincide with a higher density of birds in that area?

A special thanks to each of our instructors that make our Faculty-Led Field Courses a success. We look forward to having you back next time! 

2019 BFREE Field Course Group Photos

The University of North Carolina Wilmington, Wilmington, N.C.

The University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Amherst, MA

Marshall University, Huntington, West Virginia

Jacksonville University, Jacksonville, FL 

Flagler College, St Augustine, FL

Independence Junior College, Independence, Belize

Allegheny College, Meadville, PA

Nebraska Wesleyan University, Lincoln, Nebraska

PHOTO HIGHLIGHTS

We would love to see the photos you took during your time in Belize. Please share them via social media on             Instagram @bfreebz or by email to contact@bfreebz.org. 

Birds, Chocolate, Forests, and Allegheny College

Allegheny College students pose for a photo at BFREE during the Birds, Chocolate, Forest Field Course in May 2019. 

Written By, Beth Choate, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Environmental Science and Sustainability
Allegheny College

BFREE’s Birds, Chocolate and Forests course provided students with a real life example of the complexities of conservation within the rainforests of southern Belize. Through interactive demonstrations and presentations, field research and experiments, day-excursions, conversations with all members of the BFREE team, and exploring the surrounding environment, students developed an understanding of the relationships not only between birds, chocolate, and forests, but people as well. The complicated web of relationships that exists among efforts to conserve biodiversity and livelihoods is something we speak often about in our Environmental Science and Sustainability courses at Allegheny College. In our introductory course for the major, we make it clear to students that you will not find the solutions to environmental problems in a book. Each problem is unique and requires individuals who can critically examine the issue to devise a unique and thoughtful solution. The 2-week experience with our BFREE guides was a perfect compliment to this concept. In a country where people rely on the natural resources of the surrounding forests to provide them with medicines, food, and fertile land for agriculture, it quickly became clear that you couldn’t simply tell people to stop using the forest. BFREE  provides a unique solution: conserve the forest and grow a cash crop within the understory in an effort to conserve birds and other organisms, as well as livelihood. Jacob spoke with us about ongoing efforts to ensure that methods of cacao agro-forestry were fully understood so that local farmers could create successful farms and provide for their families demonstrating that BFREE is thinking about the sustainability of their program. The complexities of conservation also became apparent when learning about the Hicatee turtle, talking with Ernesto about traditional Mayan culture, and spending time on the coast in Placencia. This course was the perfect compliment to what we are saying in the classroom:
solving environmental problems is complicated.

Students from Allegheny College spend time in the BFREE cacao nursery. The group received hands-on experience in what it takes to make chocolate, from seed – to bean – to bar!

In order to solve those complicated problems, one must be curious, flexible, and have excellent communication and intercultural skills. Many of our students had minimal experience traveling outside of the US and very few had been submerged in a culture different to their own. When students are outside of their comfort zone, they are forced to adapt and push their own limits. It is through experiencing this unknown, whether it be using compost toilets, learning to fall asleep to the sound of howler monkeys, or discovering just how difficult harvesting cacao in the jungle can be, students were forced to overcome new challenges. After reading their final journal entries, many of our students surprised themselves. They learned that they are capable of much more than they ever thought possible. Through conversations with the BFREE staff and local Belizeans we met during the trip, worldviews were expanded and communication skills improved. For many students, this was the highlight of the trip, getting to know individuals with completely different life experiences than themselves. From an educational perspective, this is impossible to teach in a classroom or while simply touring around. BFREE provided an excellent experience for students to be completely submerged in the Belize culture, all while learning in a completely new environment.

A pile of roasted cocoa beans lay on the table. These beans have a thin, papery shell around them which needs to be removed. The students are cracking the beans open and the shell is removed in a process called winnowing. The lighter shells are blown away with fans, leaving behind pieces of pure cocoa bean, known as “nibs”.

Instagram Takeover featuring Kaitlin Elgrim

@BFREEBZ Instagram Takeover: Sharing Real Experiences from the People & Wildlife at BFREE

The BFREE Biological Research Station and privately protected area in southern Belize host numerous student study abroad courses, volunteers, researchers and scientist from around the world each year. Our remote location in the rainforest means our visitors must unplug from their devices and aren’t able to instantly share their experiences with the rest of the world. The @BFREEBZ Instagram Takeover: Sharing Real Experiences from the People & Wildlife at BFREE gives our visitors a chance to share their stories and photos once they have returned home and to bring us along as they reminisce on the good, bad and beautiful! 

Learn about the real experiences, obstacles and adventures had by these visitors through the stories and photos they share directly to our account. Like their photos, ask them questions, follow along! 

FEATURING KAITLIN ELGRIM! 

Kaitlin is an Ecology major at Sterling College in Vermont and hopes to work as a park ranger for the National Park Service after graduating. 

Recently returning from her trip to Belize where her group visited BFREE for several days she has agreed to participate in our next Instagram Takeover. 

We asked Kaitlin a few questions so we could all get to know her a bit better. Check out what she had to say about her time in Belize below and be sure to follow along on Instagram at @BFREEBZ beginning today to catch all of her photos until Friday! 

  • What was your favorite part about the trip and why?

Honestly, it is really hard to pick a favorite part the jungle is such a beautiful mysterious place but a few moments will be ingrained in my memory including when I found a very large wolf spider in the bunkhouse and my roommates and I was able to compose ourselves and got it safely outside. One of my favorite parts of the trip was when myself and a few classmates were walking back to the bunkhouse at night, and we saw a tapir. It was dark and hard to see, but we saw the eyes, and it was so cool and exciting.  To confirm our sighting, we caught the tapir on our game cam that night.

  • What did you learn while you were there and how do you hope to further use that knowledge?

I learned a lot about conservation when staying at BFREE. I enjoyed being able to hear the perspectives of the guides and how their family and communities understand conservation.

I would like to revisit Belize a few times to learn more about conservation efforts and ecotourism as well as to spend more time learning the plants of the area.

  • Did you discover a new favorite animal or plant?

I think the tapir made a big impact on me as well as some of the amazing plants Belize has including the heliconia lobster claw. There were so many amazing plants! I think my head is still reeling from the sheer number of different things.

  • What was the biggest personal learning outcome from your trip to Belize? 

I was really surprised how conservation is so much more prevalent in the culture of Belize then it is in the US. It made me really excited to see that people were very knowledgeable of their surroundings and spent a lot of time in nature. Personally, I learned to not talk myself out of things I was nervous to climb the fire tower at BFREE so the first time I didn’t but I went back with Jaren (BFREE’s HCRC Fellow)and went all the way to the top, and it was amazing.

  • What advice would you give a future visitor to BFREE? 

I would tell them to make sure they bring an extra set of clothes I packed very minimally for the trip and regretted it when all of my clothes were wet. I would also say keep an open mind some things might seem scary but if you think about their ecological role they are actually awesome!

Thanks, Kaitlin! We can’t wait to learn even more about you and your time at BFREE during your @BFREEBZ Instagram Takeover from March 13-16, 2018! 

Want to be our next Instagram Takeover participant, learn more below: 

How it works: Starting on #TakeoverTuesday a selected participant will gain full access to the @BFREEBZ Instagram account. They will share for the rest of the week personal stories along with the photos they took while in Belize. Like their photos, ask them questions, and learn about the people and wildlife that make our special place in the rainforest so unique. 

Want to participate: It’s easy! If you have traveled to BFREE and would like to share with our community your experiences through the photos you took, then send us an email and we will add you to the schedule! Email: contact@bfreebz.org

Instagram Takeover featuring Kaitlin Elgrim

@BFREEBZ Instagram Takeover: Sharing Real Experiences from the People & Wildlife at BFREE

The BFREE Biological Research Station and privately protected area in southern Belize host numerous student study abroad courses, volunteers, researchers and scientist from around the world each year. Our remote location in the rainforest means our visitors must unplug from their devices and aren’t able to instantly share their experiences with the rest of the world. The @BFREEBZ Instagram Takeover: Sharing Real Experiences from the People & Wildlife at BFREE gives our visitors a chance to share their stories and photos once they have returned home and to bring us along as they reminisce on the good, bad and beautiful! 

Learn about the real experiences, obstacles and adventures had by these visitors through the stories and photos they share directly to our account. Like their photos, ask them questions, follow along! 

 

FEATURING KAITLIN ELGRIM! 

Kaitlin is an Ecology major at Sterling College in Vermont and hopes to work as a park ranger for the National Park Service after graduating. 

Recently returning from her trip to Belize where her group visited BFREE for several days she has agreed to participate in our next Instagram Takeover. 

We asked Kaitlin a few questions so we could all get to know her a bit better. Check out what she had to say about her time in Belize below and be sure to follow along on Instagram at @BFREEBZ beginning today to catch all of her photos until Friday! 

 

  • What was your favorite part about the trip and why?

Honestly, it is really hard to pick a favorite part the jungle is such a beautiful mysterious place but a few moments will be ingrained in my memory including when I found a very large wolf spider in the bunkhouse and my roommates and I was able to compose ourselves and got it safely outside. One of my favorite parts of the trip was when myself and a few classmates were walking back to the bunkhouse at night, and we saw a tapir. It was dark and hard to see, but we saw the eyes, and it was so cool and exciting.  To confirm our sighting, we caught the tapir on our game cam that night.

  • What did you learn while you were there and how do you hope to further use that knowledge?

I learned a lot about conservation when staying at BFREE. I enjoyed being able to hear the perspectives of the guides and how their family and communities understand conservation.

I would like to revisit Belize a few times to learn more about conservation efforts and ecotourism as well as to spend more time learning the plants of the area.

  • Did you discover a new favorite animal or plant?

I think the tapir made a big impact on me as well as some of the amazing plants Belize has including the heliconia lobster claw. There were so many amazing plants! I think my head is still reeling from the sheer number of different things.

  • What was the biggest personal learning outcome from your trip to Belize? 

I was really surprised how conservation is so much more prevalent in the culture of Belize then it is in the US. It made me really excited to see that people were very knowledgeable of their surroundings and spent a lot of time in nature. Personally, I learned to not talk myself out of things I was nervous to climb the fire tower at BFREE so the first time I didn’t but I went back with Jaren (BFREE’s HCRC Fellow)and went all the way to the top, and it was amazing.

  • What advice would you give a future visitor to BFREE? 

I would tell them to make sure they bring an extra set of clothes I packed very minimally for the trip and regretted it when all of my clothes were wet. I would also say keep an open mind some things might seem scary but if you think about their ecological role they are actually awesome!

Thanks, Kaitlin! We can’t wait to learn even more about you and your time at BFREE during your @BFREEBZ Instagram Takeover from March 13-16, 2018! 

Want to be our next Instagram Takeover participant, learn more below: 

How it works: Starting on #TakeoverTuesday a selected participant will gain full access to the @BFREEBZ Instagram account. They will share for the rest of the week personal stories along with the photos they took while in Belize. Like their photos, ask them questions, and learn about the people and wildlife that make our special place in the rainforest so unique. 

Want to participate: It’s easy! If you have traveled to BFREE and would like to share with our community your experiences through the photos you took, then send us an email and we will add you to the schedule! Email: contact@bfreebz.org

Summer Intern Spotlight: Parr McQueen

Parr McQueen, an undergraduate student at the University of Richmond traveled to Belize with BFREE earlier this year along with thirteen other classmates. The Field Course led by Dr. Amy Treonis and Dr. Kristine Grayson was focused on using experiential field methods to learn how scientists study the natural world.

Inspired by his trip and what he learned during his semester-long course, Parr returned to BFREE this summer. For just over a month, Parr spent his time working in the field, collecting data to support his research examining cacao based agroforestry and its impact on the rainforest. When he wasn’t busy taking soil samples, Parr explored the many trails around BFREE snapping incredible photos of the wildlife he discovered.

We are so fortunate to have hosted Parr for the second time this year. We can’t wait to see all of the great things he will accomplish!

My Summer Internship at BFREE

By: Parr McQueen 

Earlier this summer I had the fantastic opportunity to stay at the BFREE field station for five weeks as part of the summer internship program. As a current undergraduate student at the University of Richmond, this was a great educational opportunity for me. Doing anything from assisting with the care of the Hickatee turtles to working with school groups, I was able to experience the rainforest more than any week-long field course could offer. This was an incredible experience with too many good memories to write about and has certainly made me grow, providing a stepping stone for future career prospects. In addition to the internship program, I made use of my time in Belize to conduct my own research.

My research examines cacao based agroforestry and its impact on the rainforest. In much of the developing world, forests are being cut down at increasing rates for traditional agriculture. Slash and burn farming is prevalent and it is occurring right up to protected area boundaries, reducing habitat for endangered species and contributing to climate change. Deforestation in the tropics has been estimated to make up 29% of the total emissions from fossil fuels and other sources that cause global warming.

BFREE has an ongoing project to help promote cacao agroforestry, which is a much more sustainable farming method that still provides income for local farmers. This is a way of planting cacao, the raw product to make chocolate, within the established rainforest instead of in a traditional field. Rather than cutting the forest to the ground, smaller plants are thinned out and large trees are left in place. In many studies, this has been shown to preserve biodiversity by providing habitat for avian and mammalian species, but no work at all has been done examining how the microorganisms are affected. With the help of Dr. Amy Treonis, Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Richmond, I am attempting to answer this important question.

While in Belize, I sampled soil from replicate cacao agroforestry farms and the adjacent undisturbed rainforest. Currently, in Richmond, I am in the middle of processing the soils to extract microscopic nematode worms. Nematodes are a commonly studied microorganism and are a good indicator species of soil health. I will be looking at the makeup of the nematode communities present in the soils to get an idea of the health of the soil in the agroforestry systems compared to the health in the undisturbed rainforest. This research is important because we need to know if the cacao agroforestry is impacting the health and biodiversity within the soil. While we can see the colorful birds and cute mammals prospering, we have no idea if the microorganisms in the soil are thriving or not. Healthy soil microorganisms carry out critical nutrient cycling and decomposition processes that are essential to having a fully functioning ecosystem.

Overall I had a wonderful time at the BFREE field station and was able to learn a lot, by fully immersing myself in the day-to-day operations, while at the same time strengthening my own personal research program.

 

2017 BFREE Field Courses

BFREE 2017 Field Course Season wraps up this month with 172 students and instructors visiting the Field Station from as far as Scotland and Alaska. Eleven courses in total, including two junior colleges and one primary school from Belize, all traveled to our small slice of paradise off the Southern Highway.

BFREE field courses are each uniquely developed by the lead instructors and BFREE staff. Courses are created to reflect each school’s curriculum and goals. While each group is different, visitors to BFREE share many similar challenging and rewarding experiences.

Upon arrival to Belize, each group is welcomed at the airport by a BFREE Tour Guide. If you have the pleasure to be greeted by Nelly Cadle then you know you are in for a treat! Nelly’s experience, knowledge, and passion for her country and work are hard to match.

The hike from the Southern Highway to the BFREE Field Station is a memory hard to forget. Traversing several distinct habitats, each with unique plants and animals, leads you to the Bladen River, towering cecropia trees, and your final destination — The BFREE Field Station.

While at BFREE, groups not only learn about the various ongoing program work but have the chance to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty with first-hand experience supporting BFREE’s conservation initiatives. Students have the opportunity to visit the Hicatee Conservation & Research Center (HCRC), a breeding and research facility for the critically endangered hicatee turtle as well as the 15-acre cacao and coffee agroforest, home to over 12,000 cacao trees.

Assigned by their instructors, many students are tasked with developing research questions and collecting preliminary data while spending several days working on independent projects.

Students may choose to participate in various field experiments such as conducting river studies in the Bladen River, setting up small mammal traps for the Small Mammal Community Study or surveying selected plots in the Fruit Phenology Study.

In addition to the BFREE Field Station, many groups incorporate a marine component, learning about the second largest barrier reef system in the world, snorkeling from various islands around Belize.

There is nothing quite like traveling to a remote field station deep in a tropical rainforest to create memories and friendships that will last a lifetime.

On behalf of all of us at BFREE, we would like to extend a sincere thank you to all of the instructors, administrators, students, and parents that helped make the 2017 BFREE Field Season one of the best yet! We can’t wait to see you all again!

If you are interested in visiting BFREE, whether it be a student group, family vacation, solo adventure or interest in volunteering, we would be thrilled to have you! Contact BFREE Program Coordinator, Tyler Sanville at tsanville@bfreebz.org for more information.

 

2017 BFREE Field Courses 

 

For even more Field Course information check out these links below: 

University of Richmond Story Map

Click the link above to visit the University of Richmond’s Story Map put together by the fourteen students that visited BFREE this year.

Vermont Commons School Video: Belize is Our Classroom!

Vermont Commons School creates a compelling video documenting their trip to BFREE, check it out on YouTube: Belize is Our Classroom! 

Volunteer with BFREE

BFREE is now looking for volunteers to work with HCRC Manager, Tom Pop and the nearly 70 newly hatched hicatee turtles. Visit the link below for more info!

BFREE flickr Page

Find even more photos from the 2017 BFREE Field Course season on flickr!

Slideshow on Student Alumni Facebook Group

Watch all the group photos from 2017 in this slideshow on the BFREE Student Alumni Group Page. If you are a student alum, be sure to follow along!