Bats & Farms
ABC's Bats & Farms project aims to provide a quantitative measure of the importance of bats to farms in Malawi, to facilitate ecological farming and contribute to national and regional agricultural policy development.
Agriculture accounts for one-third of Malawi’s GDP, 90 percent of export earnings, and three quarters of total employment. Principal exports are tobacco, sugar, tea and coffee, and maize is the dominant subsistence crop, covering 80 per cent of all cultivated land.
Each of these crops has a number of damaging insect pest species that can make a high percentage unsaleable. This poses a problem to both small-scale farmers whose crops and livelihood can be devastated, and large-scale farms which generally use high quantities of pesticide chemicals to protect the crops.
Arthropod pests destroy 8-15% of global wheat, rice, maize, potato, soybean and cotton production; without natural biological control and pesticide, crop losses would be 9-37%.
What role do bats play?
Bats are primary predators of night-flying insects, and many such insects rank among Southern Africa's most costly agricultural and forest pests. Some species can consume over 500 insects a night.
In addition to consuming insect pests, it is suggested that bats protect crops from pests by “chasing” away insects with their echolocation calls. Researchers saw a 50 percent reduction in damage to corn plots by corn borers when they broadcast bat-like ultrasound over test plots.
A drop in bat numbers increases our reliance upon chemical pesticides that typically cause more long-term problems than they solve, and can be extremely costly.
Estimating the economic importance of bats in agricultural systems is challenging, but vitally important if we are to address the alarming rate of biodiversity loss across the increasingly vast swathes of cultivated land.
Satemwa tea and coffee estate
ABC’s first Bats & Farms project started March 2015 and has been based at the tea and coffee plantations of Satemwa, in the Shire Highlands of Malawi near the city of Blantyre.
The research at Satemwa aims to quantify the value bats provide to the agricultural industry through pest control, and soon this experiment will be rolled out to other crops grown in the Liwonde region.
The experiment looks at the leaf and berry damage on coffee plants by pest herbivore insects such as coffee berry borers (Hypothenemus hampeii). Using bat excluded and bird excluded nets along with a control, the team have been measuring and comparing the damage to the crops to assess what impact these predators have on the pest damage to the plants.
Coffee has an estimated retail value of ~ US$90 billion making it one of the most economically important tropical crops and up to twenty million households worldwide make their livelihood from its cultivation.
A long-term aim of this project is to facilitate ecological farming and advise on agricultural policy. The benefits bats bring to agriculture is not widely known across Malawi, and through this research ABC are involving local farmers and harvesters and helping them to realise the potential for bats to improve their yield through ecological farming methods.
Instead of eradicating bat colonies from their fields and buildings, farmers will be encouraged to explore ways of attracting bats to their fields with living fences, shade grown crops and ABC bat boxes that can be installed onsite.
Please contact the research team for more information about the Bats and Farms project.