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  • Simon Dauphinee

Termites, Toucans & Tarantulas, Oh My! An Expat’s Guide to Wildlife in Belize, Part One

Updated: May 26

Belize is home to a vast array of wildlife. There is no shortage of fascinating creatures, from the fabled jaguar and the ubiquitous gecko to graceful whale sharks and colourful sea snakes. Whether lounging in the pool, chilling in a hammock seaside, or hiking through the jungle, you will undoubtedly encounter local fauna. 


There are far too many animals to explore without making an epic encyclopedia-sized post, so instead, we'll look at the most commonly encountered animals. Even then, this will be a three-parter as expats should get to know the many animals they will see and interact with.


Spiders


Tarantula

Belize has a wide web of spider species, ranging from the tiny orb-weaver to the imposing tarantula. There are far too many species to get into any specifics, but know that the expat will undoubtedly encounter some while in the country. Some are poisonous, like the silk orb weaver mentioned above and the brown recluse. I have closely encountered this species a few times, and despite its potent venom, it is, thankfully, docile. While spiders inspire trepidation, most will only bite out of preservation. Spiders are important fixtures for Belizean ecology and play a vital role in controlling insect populations and maintaining ecological balance. Back to the silk weaver one more time: they are fascinating creatures whose silk is eight times stronger than steel of the same diameter!


Toucans: National Bird of Belize


Toucans in tree

Belize is home to the vibrant and photogenic toucan, specifically the keel-billed toucan (aka rainbow-billed toucan or bill bird), the country's national bird. The keel-billed toucan is a common sight in Belize's tropical rainforests, recognizable by its large, colorful beak that displays a striking mix of green, orange, red, and blue. These social birds are often seen in small flocks, flitting through the canopy or perched high on tree branches. Toucans are also known for their distinctive croaking calls that echo over treetops.


Although their large bills might seem cumbersome, they are incredibly lightweight and allow toucans to reach and consume various fruits, their primary diet. Interestingly, toucans also play a crucial role in their ecosystem as seed dispersers, aiding in the propagation of tropical plant species. For expats and visitors alike, spotting a keel-billed toucan in the wild is a notable Belizean experience. I recently witnessed these beauties in the jungle outside of Belmopan, the nation’s capital. Even though I understand that their beaks are not a hindrance, their ability to fly seems to defy physics.


Iguanas


Iguana

These reptiles are common all over Belize and are often spotted lounging in trees or sunbathing in the open. With their prehistoric appearance and distinctive spines along their backs, iguanas add a touch of ancient charm to the varied landscapes. They are herbivores and love hibiscus flowers, much to many property owners’ chagrin. I love hibiscus and planted one outside when we landscaped The Green House by the Sea. The iguanas annihilated that poor plant to near death no sooner than the first bud bloomed. Thankfully, they are resilient, as well as beautiful, and it bounced back after potting it and moving it to our deck. 


I digress. Male iguanas get quite large and are distinguishable by their yellowish skin. The females are smaller and green. There is also the Black Iguana species, which are native to Belize. These are smaller than the aforementioned variety and are gray with black markings. If you encounter any iguana and it doesn't run away at first sight of you, don't get too close; they are known to whip their tails when they are scared. Fun fact: Iguanas are excellent swimmers and can dive deep underwater to evade predators or the inquisitive expat.


Agoutis


Agouti

Resembling oversized guinea pigs, these large rodents are adept at foraging for food in the forest underbrush or your neighbor's empty lot. Their powerful hind legs allow them to leap up to six feet in a single jump, and they are often seen bounding through residential yards in great feats of athleticism. Agoutis aren't just cuties (my wife and I have dubbed them ‘cutie agoutis’). They play a crucial role in dispersing seeds and contributing to the health of local ecosystems. 


Bees


Bee on flower

Belizean bees are integral to healthy ecosystems and the agricultural landscape. The country is home to 25 varieties of bee species, including several species of stingless bees, like the endangered Melipona Beecheii, also known as the Royal Lady bee in the Maya language. For centuries, the Mayans have cultivated these stingless bees for their honey, which is prized for its medicinal properties and unique flavor.


Just like elsewhere in the world, bees play a critical role in pollinating local flora. These industrious little buzzers contribute to the health of Belize's tropical forests, the productivity of agroforestry projects and crops like citrus, banana, and cacao, and the thriving local honey industry.


Antics of Wildlife in Belize


Leaf cutter ants

Belize is home to over 150 ant species! Each plays a unique role in the ecosystems, contributing to processes like soil aeration and organic matter decomposition and serving as a food source for other wildlife. Here are a few that the expat will run into.


Sugar Ants 

These innumerable, tiny Hymenoptera, known for their sweet tooth, are often found invading kitchen counters and pantries, attracted to sugary foods and drinks. These ants are harmless but are a nuisance due to their persistence in seeking out sweet treats and resistance to eviction. Once you have them, you have them! Just stay as clean as possible, tidy up messes on counters and table tops immediately and keep as much food in sealed containers as possible.


Fire Ants

Belize is home to fire ants, which are an aggressive biting type. They are tough little buggers that bite hard and cause a painful burning itch and allergic reactions in some individuals. These ants are typically found everywhere, from sandy beaches and jungle floors. My first experience with these little red devils was at Xunatunich, when my oldest son, a year and a half at the time, sat on a nest. His screams echoed through the ruin. We have since built up a tolerance to their bite, but it still doesn't feel very nice when it happens. 


Leaf Cutter Ants

The most fascinating among Belizean ants are the leaf-cutter ants, which are true marvels of nature. These industrious insects cut and carry leaf fragments back to their nests to cultivate fungus, their primary food source. Leaf-cutter ants are vital for nutrient cycling in the rainforest, but they can also be problematic for farmers due to their voracious crop appetite.


Termites


Termite nest

Despite their close resemblance to ants, termites are more closely related to cockroaches. Like ants, termites live in large, complex colonies that can number millions, working together to build intricate nests called termitaria. These look like large, brown, irregularly shaped (but round or oval) nests high in trees or amongst fallen flora. Emanating out of these nests are vast and intricate tunnels that the termites, who prefer dark environments, use to traverse the landscape for food to return to the nest. These industrious insects can be found in various habitats, from dense rainforests to urban areas.


Like termites everywhere, they can cause serious damage to wood structures, plywood, and furniture. It's a good idea to check and spray for termites around your property routinely. Although they are essential decomposers in the Belizean environment, they are indifferent to what they snack on. Termites play a vital role in the ecosystem by breaking down wood and plant material, but can quickly destroy personal belongings that have been stored away or unattended. I recently discovered that my hurricane plywood had an infestation, irreparably damaging ⅓ of my precut panels. The process recycles nutrients back into the soil and supports the health of the forest ecosystem, which is all good; I’d prefer they don't use my stuff to do that. 


Flood Flies

These aren't flies, but a type of flying terminate. They lay dormant in the ground during the dry season and rise from the earth like the walking dead after the first heavy rain of the year. They swam in the millions and infiltrate every crack and crevasse in your home. Once inside, they lose their wings, procreate and die. They come every year; there is no avoiding them. My wife and I now anticipate this event as the rainy season approaches and have rolls of painter's tape ready to temporarily seal around doors and windows as the swarms rise up. Ultimately they are harmless, they are just a pain in the ass to clean up afterward and their wings linger for months.


More to Come: Continue Your Belizean Wildlife Adventure

That's all for now. As you can see, Belize's wildlife is as diverse as it is fascinating. From the dino-like iguana to the industrious leaf-cutter ants, every encounter offers a unique glimpse into the vibrant ecosystems of this beautiful country. Stay tuned for parts two and three, where we'll continue exploring the captivating animals that make Belize a wildlife paradise. Don't miss out on more intriguing information and tips for living alongside Belize's incredible fauna!


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