Scientist honored for study on bats in agriculture


A researcher attached to the Department of Zoology and Entomology at the University of the Free State recently received an international scholarship for her research on bats in the agricultural industry.

Alexandra Howard specifically wanted to determine how bats can assist fruit farmers with pest control through agroecology.

Howard undertook this research for her doctorate because of “a need to better connect ecological research and agriculture”.

“While bats are a critical component of our biodiversity, they need more awareness and education among members of the public due to their unfairly negative reputation.”

Through her research, Howard therefore wanted to demonstrate the ecological and economic value of bats while helping to counter the misplaced public fears of bats, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“It’s also a nice challenge to try to convince people that bats are as wonderful as I think they are!”

Howard’s passion and love for bats already developed during the completion of her master’s degree studies. Prof. Peter Taylor, under whom she completed her doctorate, was himself also a pioneer researcher on the impact of bats as pest controllers on macadamia farms.

She believes that the role of bats specifically in agriculture is insufficiently studied and relatively unknown in the Free State – one of South Africa’s important agricultural regions. Therefore, she plans to use the project to highlight the value of bats as part of integrated pest management strategies.

“By eating insects that cause pests, bats can reduce the use of expensive insecticides and contribute to more sustainable agricultural practices.”

In this way, bats can enjoy improved protection by apple producers who recognize the benefits of these small flying mammals, explains Howard.

Natural pest control

In 2022, she monitored local bat species and insect activity on six apple farm sites to investigate whether these mammals are effective natural pest controllers in fruit orchards.

Bats in the Eastern Free State where the research was conducted are not fruit bats “because it is too cold, so luckily they are not in conflict with the farmers”, explains Howard.

The more than 11 species of bats she found on these farms instead eat insects such as codling moths, beetles and arrowtails – some of South Africa’s biggest agricultural pests.

Despite various pest control methods used in orchards, little attention has been paid to the extent to which bats help control pests, explains Howard.

“Although bats have been shown to help control pests in some crops in northern countries, scientists know little about how they interact with the pests that affect fruit crops in South Africa and whether they help keep fruit-eating pests in check.”

This is mostly due to biodiversity that is excluded from conventional farming and pest control methods, she explains.

Therefore, according to Howard, much more emphasis must be placed on agricultural ecology – the development of sustainable and environmentally friendly practices by looking at the relationship between plants, animals, people and their environment.

More prices

In addition, this year she became one of only seven women scientists to receive the prestigious L’Oréal-Unesco For Women in Science national award in South Africa.

According to Serge Sacre, L’Oréal South Africa country manager, it is particularly important to recognize women scientists in South Africa.

“L’Oréal firmly believes that women have a critical role to play in helping to solve South Africa’s and indeed the world’s most pressing challenges. They must be represented at every level of the scientific supply chain – from research and implementation to policy and programming.”

For Howard, it is a great honor to receive this prize, but she also “walked a long way to get here”.

Future projects

In her next research, Howard would like to determine what percentage of the bats’ diets make up these pests and whether there is a monetary value attached to their pest control services.

“With a monetary value, shareholders can get a better idea of ​​the economic benefit of this form of pest control.”

In this way, sustainability farmers, smallholdings and eventually also commercial farmers can produce safe and healthy fruit in this way while reducing their ecological footprint, she explains.

In her future research, Howard wants to find more ways to further bridge the gap between science and society.

“I want to enable better collaboration between academics, citizens, conservation NGOs, government sectors and students, as we all need to work together to tackle the biodiversity crisis we all face,” she notes.

“The hope is that this project, which is in line with at least five of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, will provide recommendations that all stakeholders can use to promote sustainable farming practices and improve biodiversity conservation strategies, ultimately making farming more environmentally friendly and leading to benefit of the bat population.”