Fruit farmers court bats to fight pests

Orchard farmers in Kisii, long buffeted by flies and insects have successfully courted bats to tame the menace recording a significant drop in insect infested fruits while cutting down on pesticide use which has traditionally taken a toll on fruit quality and their pockets.

And this transformatory exercise now seem to have the backing of science with scientists now arguing that insect-eating bats regulate entire ecosystems and can save crops from disaster. "Insectivorous bats are estimated to consume 25 per cent of their body mass in insects each night," cites a study published in the science journal. A single bat can eat up to 1,200 mosquito-sized insects every hour, and each bat usually eats 6,000 to 8,000 insects each night.

The farmers in Nyamira buffeted by notorious insects like fruit fly, Mango gall fly and mango mealy bug invested a fortune in non performing pesticides.
Endless use of pesticides without tangible results resulted in the farmers opting out of the lucrative fruit market that had been responsible for a huge source of their income. But a bat domestication advice from a fresh graduate from Moi University who chose to look for home made solutions to pest control, though at first treated with scepticism was to become a breath of fresh air.

Model farms returned impressive results with one such farm by Phillip Onyonka, a mango and avocado farmer making a yield turn around in just three months after the introduction of the bats. “I was among the pioneer fifteen farmers who took the advice of a young agricultural officer who fronted the idea. I had lost over 400kgs of mango and an equal amount of avocado and I had nothing else to loose. When next the trees started flowering, I was shocked to see the fruits matured undisturbed,” he said.

The domestication of the bats involved building specific cages for them with rafts of trees in the roof where they could hang  and a strategic opening facing the trees where they would be enticed to go after the flies.
The roaring success lured other farmers to the same with the number of farmers into bat domestication currently standing at 200.

The domestication however hasnt been an easy task as tracing the bats is a near impossible experience. The slow reproduction adds to the complication.  They give birth to only one pup a year, which means they cannot quickly rebuild their populations.

The farmers are also experimenting with the bats for seed dispersal with small trees having mushroomed in gardens where the bats are reared. The bats which feeds on fruits excrete seeds on their nocturnal movements, sometimes a considerable distance from their parent tree. 

The seeds, packed into their own fertilizer, then grow into new fruit trees, regenerating the vulnerable rainforests. David Bosire another farmer rearing the bats says it took him time to realize that the bats were responsible for mushrooming of plum trees in his garden. “I farm plums but an agronomist explained to me about the bat's seed dispersal method which I had to stay through the night to experience,” he explained. The bats     have been responsible for over 200 plum trees in Bosire's garden.

And as the country grapples with delicate export market for its fruits following bans of its fruits which the importing countries claim are fly infested, industry players now say a simple, inexpensive and largely available solution like bat domestication in orchards could ultimately halve the menace and increase yield and exports.

Philipine for example is a country that has perfected the art of embracing bats to improve its ecosysyem. Trees at the Subic Bay Forest Watershed Reserve are propagated by over 10,000 fruit bats, and the watershed in turn provides freshwater for the country's fastest growing industrial port.
But scientists also warn that bats are disease carriers and are one the biggest culprits of the diseases transmitted between animal and man including Ebola, SARS, and rabies.

Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter