Advancing research on bats in apple orchards

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

A PhD candidate at the University of the Free State’s (UFS) Qwaqwa Campus, Alexandra Howard, is making great progress with her project focussing on the value of bats on apple farms. Her project, titled “Diversity and ecosystem services of bats on apple fruit farms in the Eastern Free State”, estimates the value of bats within integrated pest management strategies.

Originally from Johannesburg, Howard embarked on this project after discovering her passion for bats during her master’s degree programme at the University of Pretoria. She recognised the need for a stronger connection between ecological research and agriculture, particularly concerning bats since limited bat surveys have been done in the eastern Free State. Prof Peter Taylor, a research professor at the UFS, whose previous speciality was the role of bats in macadamia farming, contacted her and their collaboration has been instrumental ever since.

The project

Howard’s research paves the way for targeted plans to protect bats while assisting apple producers in recognising the benefits of these flying mammals. By consuming insect pests, bats can reduce the need for expensive insecticides, which promotes sustainable agricultural practices. She notes that myths involving bats have influenced her research, as negative stereotypes are widespread globally and rooted in misconceptions.

While acknowledging people’s fear of bats, she emphasises the importance of debunking these myths, highlighting the enlightening social aspect of her work by conducting social surveys to understand what South Africans believe regarding bats.    

During her field studies at six apple farm sites in the eastern Free State, Howard monitored local bat species and insect activity to understand how bats control pests. South Africa has over 60 bat species.

Eleven of these species are found on the apple farms she studied. These bats consume insects, such as moths and beetles, potentially including significant agricultural pests like codling moths and bollworms.

While bat diets have been studied elsewhere, her work in the eastern Free State fills a crucial gap. Producers have supported her by installing bat boxes to collect guano pellets for analysing the bats’ diet. Acoustic data indicates active foraging on the apple farms throughout the year. The next phase involves exploring the bats’ diet and assessing economic aspects to highlight stakeholders’ pesticide expenses. Howard aims to promote the role of bats and biodiversity, advocating for reduced pesticide reliance.

Read more about the benefits of mulch in crop production.

Recognition and support

Howard’s dedication bears fruit as she was among seven outstanding female scientists honoured at the prestigious L’OréalUnited Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for Women in Science Award ceremony in 2023. Established in 1998 to elevate women in science, these international awards commend exceptional researchers contributing to scientific progress.

The programme, now in its fifth year in South Africa, provides crucial funding to female scientists for their research. Additionally, Howard received a student scholarship grant from Bat Conservation International towards the laboratory expenses this project incurs.

The American Society of Mammologists African Research Fellowship assisted with the lab expenses in 2022. Grateful and honoured, she notes the significant and long journey she has travelled in the field of bats in agro-ecosystems. – Christal-Lize Muller, Plaas Media

For more information, contact Alexandra Howard at blondezoologist@gmail.com or 2020912230@ufs4life.ac.za or Dr Nitha Ramnath at ramnathn@ufs.ac.za.

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