Award recognises’s work on the value of bats on apple farms

Alexandra Howard recently received a prestigious 2023 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science National Award.

Alexandra Howard, a PhD candidate in the Department of Zoology and Entomology and the Afromontane Research Unit (ARU) on the University of the Free State (UFS) Qwaqwa Campus, recently received a $3 000 USD scholarship grant from Bat Conservation International (BCI) in support of her project, ‘Diversity and ecosystem services of bats on apple fruit farms in the Eastern Free State.’

Howard, a student of Prof Peter Taylor, ARU Professor in Residence affiliated with the Department of Zoology and Entomology, recently learned that she is the recipient of a prestigious 2023 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science National Award. This makes her one of only seven women scientists to be honoured with this notable distinction, which has been celebrating women scientists around the world for the past 25 years.

Receiving this award is a truly significant accomplishment. Of the more than 100 women scientists honoured by this programme, five later received Nobel Prizes.

According to Serge Sacre, L’Oréal South Africa Country Manager, recognising women scientists in South Africa is particularly important. “L’Oréal firmly believes that women have a critical role to play in helping to solve some of South Africa’s, and indeed the world’s, most pressing challenges. They need to be represented at every level of the scientific supply chain – from research and implementation to policy and programming.”

Adding to Howard’s accolades, she also received a scholarship from the American Society of Mammalogists, and she was one of the winners of the best student presentation at the fifth National Climate Change Conference hosted by the UFS earlier this year.

Addressing the gap

Howard believes the role of bats in agriculture is understudied and relatively unknown in the Free State – one of South Africa’s important agricultural regions. She says she plans to use the project to estimate the value of bats as part of integrated pest management strategies.

Her research, which creates a foundation upon which more specific and targeted plans and actions can be built to protect bats, can help apple producers recognise the benefits of these small flying mammals. By eating insect pests, bats can reduce the use of costly insecticides and contribute to more sustainable agricultural practices.

She is of the opinion that there is a need to better connect ecological research and agriculture. “While bats are a critical component of our biodiversity, they require more awareness and education among the public due to their unfairly negative reputation,” says Howard, who has taken on this project to demonstrate the ecological and economic value of bats and to counteract the persecution and misplaced public fears exacerbated by COVID-19.

Natural pest control

In 2022, during field studies at six apple farm sites in the Eastern Free State, Howard monitored local bat species and insect activity to understand how these mammals benefit the deciduous fruit industry by suppressing pests. 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.

Despite various pest control methods used in fruit orchards to manage crops, little attention has been paid to how much bats help in controlling pests. This oversight is mostly due to biodiversity being excluded from conventional farming and pest control methods and bats being understudied. Therefore, the study’s goal is to determine whether bats can serve as an effective natural pest control method for these orchards.

“The hope is that this project, which aligns with at least five of the UN 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 benefiting the bat population,” she says.

Future steps

In terms of future steps, Howard expresses the desire to find 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 address the biodiversity crisis that we’re all facing,” she remarks.