How A South African Company Uses Bats And Owls As Agricultural Allies

How A South African Company Uses Bats And Owls As Agricultural Allies

When you think of pest control, you probably think chemicals and poison, not bats and owls.

A South African firm has an eco-friendly solution — one that doesn’t involve chemicals sometimes banned in other countries — to help deal with pests like the dreaded tomato leaf miner moth that caused havoc on Nigeria’s tomato crop.

The solution is bats, or more specifically, bat houses.

South Africa-based EcoSolutions says it manages some of the largest bat and insect mitigation programs in the world, and it wants to set up bat houses in Nigeria, where the Nigerian free-tailed bat (Chaerephon nigeriae) would be an excellent candidate for a project controlling miner moths.

Farms in Nigeria’s north were devastated by the larvae of the tomato leaf miner moth, Tuta absoluta, aka tomato Ebola. You can read more about it here at AFKInsider.

Farmers were so badly affected by the tomato crisis that in May 2016, the government of the northern state of Kaduna declared a state of emergency, African Business Magazine reported. More than 80 percent of tomato farms were attacked by the moths in parts of the state.

Tuta damages fruit and kills plants as the moths lay eggs. The caterpillars burrow into leaves and stems, and can develop pesticide resistance in one season. Being an alien species, it has few natural predators. It also affects potatoes, eggplants, peppers and tobacco, according to Bloomberg. At least 15 African countries have been affected.

Jonathan Haw is one of three directors for Johannesburg-based EcoSolutions, which deals with moth and insect control by positioning bat houses for agriculture. The company has 19 employees with branches in Durban and Cape Town.

The bulk of the company’s income is in rodent control using owls and owl houses. Rat poisoning among children a growing public health threat in South Africa. About 500 children a year are hospitalized from eating rat poison, known commonly in the country as “two step,” because “a rat, after eating it, takes two steps before falling over and dying,” Haw said.

The problem with rat poison

EcoSolutions received worldwide media attention for its work in South African township schools, where schoolchildren have become willing stewards for helping grow urban owl populations.

Pesticides that have been banned in the U.S. are still used in Africa, Haw told AFKInsider. “DDT isn’t used any more in Europe or America but it’s widely used in Africa still,” he said, referring to the 1962 book, “Silent Spring”  by Rachel Carson that documented the detrimental effects of indiscriminate pesticide used on the environment—particularly on birds. “DDT is used in KwaZulu-Natal, Zimbabwe … also something called Aldicarb that was designed to control nematodes. It’s banned in America. In South Africa it’s used as a rat poison,” Haw said.

EcoSolutions has been involved in mitigating woodpecker activity with utility poles, and power line raptors causing outages. Its directors are an ecologist, an accountant and a media and marketing expert. Employees include eight university graduates, three post-graduates and carpenters who manufacture the bat and owl houses.

“Rat poison is just poison,” Haw said. “We can’t come up with a poison that is rodent specific because we share a large percentage of our DNA with rats. It’s very difficult to come up with a poison that will kill 80 percent of us without killing us. So a lot of companies are trying to come up with an environmentally friendly way of killing rats.”

The company has about 1,000 bat houses that it manufactured, installed and now monitors for agricultural insect control.

“We are African and are able to work within the African environment,” said Haw, who is finishing up a master’s degree in artificial roost site selection of insectiverous bats at Wits University’s Department of Zoology.

Photo: EcoSolutions
Photo: EcoSolutions

EcoSolutions describes itself as an integrated pest management company but uses no chemicals at all. “We want people to integrate bats,” Haw said in an AFKInsider interview. “Ideally we want companies to phase out use of chemicals completely.”

Bats and owls as agricultural allies

To that end EcoSolutions sells bat houses, owl houses, and the environmental designs that map where they should be placed. Do-it-yourselfers often think building a bat house is intuitive, Haw said, “but getting occupants into these bat boxes is a science.” For example, ideal locations are close to a water supply, and near a calcium source. There’s also height, orientation and air flow to consider. Bats prefer late afternoon sun. They’re nocturnal, and temperature matters. Sometimes the bat houses need vents.

“We’re getting larger and larger corporates involved using bats,” Haw said. “At this stage it’s difficult to get clients to go completely chemical free.”

EcoSolutions does business in Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Namibia, and has consulted in Nigeria. A lot of the company’s expertise deals with mapping — like where around the hotel to place bat houses or how to harness bats to control zika or tomato moths.

Bats can eat 400-to-500 insects a night. Each EcoSolutions bat house can hold 150 bats. Bats work very hard, Haw said. They also produce milk so a lactating female bat can eat close to her body weight in moths a night.

So why didn’t the existing bat population combat the tomato leaf miner moths naturally in Nigeria, 14th biggest tomato producer in the world?

Since arriving from South America via Spain in 2008, the tomato-leaf miner has spread to at least 15 African countries, Bloomberg reported.

In Nigeria it found conditions ideal to reproduce. The pest was focused in the north where tomato growing is happening. Nigeria’s free-tailed bats roost in dead trees, and when farmers remove the trees to clear land for growing tomatoes, bats leave the area.

“Bats aren’t going to eradicate the population but they’re going to control them,” Haw said. How effective could they be against tomato miner? Very effective, he said. But nobody’s doing bat research in Nigeria. “It’s not a huge science but it’s only now gaining some credibility.”

A  reason to love bats

Haw said he’d like to do trials in Nigeria on the edge of the range of free tailed bats. In a lot of African cultures there’s mythology and fear about bats and owls. “We all come from a place of mythology,” he said. People fear vampire bats, but there’s only one vampire bat and it’s in South America. “When people see bats overcoming insect problems, their objections disappear,” he said.

Why should people care? Poisonous chemicals for controlling pests are available but not eco friendly, Haw said. Insects quickly build resistance to chemicals so the global chemical companies are constantly changing active ingredients. “Especially in Africa chemicals are used that aren’t allowed elsewhere,” Haw said. “If you have an ally in bats you can reduce moths’ resistance to pesticides. Positioning artificial bat roosts will allow bats back into those areas and they will start controlling the insects.”

Beyond direct predation, bats also exert behavioral controls. They use echolocation to find insects. Some of their prey — like leaf miner moths — can actually hear echolocation, Haw said. When a moth hears the bat, it leaves the area or takes on a strange flight pattern, impacting its ability to lay eggs.

“Just by playing a bat recording of echolocation over an orchard reduces the insect activity in that orchard,” Haw said.

EcoSolutions recently completed a program at South Africa’s University of Venda, placing 100 bat hotels in a macadamia nut orchard in Limpopo province through the Macadamia Growers Association. They were installed about a year ago and have 100 percent occupancy, he said. The bats control stink bugs and false coddling moths. The latter lays larvae much like miner moths on macadamia nuts when they soft, boring into the nut and causing it to fall off the tree prematurely.

Other EcoSolutions customers include the citrus industry of South Africa, and tourism-related businesses in Mozambique trying to control mosquitoes at luxury lodges close to the beach. Malaria has the potential to hurt tourism.

“It’s taken 100 years to get to point where people are starting to embrace it as a realistic alternative,” Haw said.

Why should you care?

Many African countries that export produce to the west also receive western aid, and there is a responsibility for end users to know what they’re getting, Haw said. That includes pesticides.

“That South African orange or Nigerian tomato in your salad might have been exposed to pesticides that are banned,” he said. “It would be better to include bats in the agricultural success of tomatoes in Africa than bailing (countries) out or providing aid when the tomato crop fails.”

People are warming to the idea that bats are there to control insects, and owls are there to control rats, Haw said. “We can bring them back as allies … Food security is a problem in Africa and one of the biggest threats is insects. Bats will travel long distances to find insects. They’ll keep coming back. They’re perfect in an integrated pest management program.”

EcoSolutions bat boxes cost 930 rand — about $64 per bat hotel. This includes a timber bat box that houses about 150 bats, with articulated artificial slides or ledges bats can clamber onto like crevices on a cliff, and a white landing tray for guano.

“In Nigeria we’d put in bat towers made of brick and concrete costing about $5,000 to $10,000 per structure, that would look a bit like dutch windmills that hold 10,000 bats,” Haw said. “They would provide a regulated thermal consistency. It’s a project that would have to involve the Nigerian government.”

EcoSolutions’ owl program has been running for 12 years. The company started a non profit set up to receive donations. It’s now a standalone organization called OwlProject.org and it was featured on the front page of the LATimes a year ago. You can learn more at the company’s Facebook page.

If South Africa sends an agricultural shipment to U.S. and false coddling moth is found, they send the entire shipment back to SA. For citrus growers in SA, false coddling moth is a disaster — it’s a sub-Saharan problem but it’s a problem all over the world. The leaf miner moth is also a problem all over the world.

The tomato moth may not be in South Africa yet but already people are concerned about it, Haw said. “It’s already red flagged. Even though Africa has borders and boundaries we don’t have the ability to monitor them the way U.S. does. SA has very porous border posts. It’s only a matter of time. Tuta absoluta is already in numerous countries in Africa. It has the ability to decimate tomato crops entirely. If it’s not tomato moths it’s going to be something else. Bats can deal with those eruptions. They’re voracious eaters and can change to meet pests that haven’t been described as pests yet.”