Bats in place of pesticides, sentinels of the agricultural ecosystem

Bats in place of pesticides, sentinels of the agricultural ecosystem

April 24, 2018

Bats in place of pesticides, sentinels of the agricultural ecosystem

A young Italian researcher, winner of the 2017 edition of BCFN YES!, tells us about the progress of her project, which facilitates field colonization by bats. The small mammals feed on harmful insects and they keep traces of the pests in their guano, which is useful for rapid monitoring

Finding solutions to food paradoxes with innovative, practical and multi-disciplinary ideas: this is the focus of the BCFN YES! contest for young researchers who excel in the design of research projects promoting agro-food sustainability. Italian researcher Laura Garzoli was one of the 2017 winners with her project on an integrated management strategy for pesticides in rice production. The key idea: increasing the benefits to the ecosystem brought by bats in the rice fields of Northern Italy. 

Her project, YES!BAT – Sustainable Rice Fields, will be carried out by the Stazione Teriologica Piemontese [Piedmont Mammalogy Station] and is hosted by the National Research Council at its Istituto per lo Studio degli Ecosistemi CNR-ISE [Institute for the Study of Ecosystems] in Verbania Pallanza. The YES!BAT project starts with the usage of bat boxes, which are artificial shelters designed to host bats in areas, like some farming lands, where they would not be found because of a lack of natural shelters. 


This simple idea increases the bat population, which plays an important role, as bats feed on all insects that harm the crops. 

The nocturnal mammals, whose droppings will be analyzed by researchers, will also supply a surveillance service: by feeding on non-native insects (whose DNA can be found in the bats' droppings), bats will act as sentinels, revealing the presence of parasites that may be potentially hazardous for crops.

Laura Garzoli and her team set a second main objective: raising public awareness on the importance of these animals for rice cultivation, in order to reduce pesticide consumption and increase food quality in compliance with production standards.

How is the project progressing in these first few months? 

Thanks to the BCFN contribution, we completed the placement of bat boxes, which are located in different places, 20 per field (both standard and organic cultures). We do not place any kind of lure or pheromone to attract the bats to the boxes: they will spontaneously populate them because they need natural shelters. At this stage we selected three out of the many farms that wanted to take part, based on the features we needed. 

What are the expected  results, in the short and long term? 

In the next few months we will collect the droppings under the bat boxes once a month, then we will perform genetic analysis to evaluate their composition and understand which insects the bats are actually eating. Even if there are new invasive insect species that could represent an additional problem for the crops, having early information on their arrival enables us to rapidly deploy containment strategies. Analyses will be carried out throughout the summer, because, unlike commercial boxes, our bat boxes are designed to attract bats also into September- October, at the end of the farming season. While we will continue monitoring until November, data on bats' diet and the types of insects found will already be available in November. The boxes will be dismantled later on. Winter ends much later, hence we will not disturb or remove bats if they are still around. We also have a camera that enables us to check things without disturbing the animals and thus decide when to dismantle.

Have you found any obstacle that you had not foreseen?

This year, winter lasted a long time, and it was still cold a few days ago, therefore the bats are only just coming. As the warm season approaches, we will start monitoring the colonization. We were expecting demanding work, but luckily we had great help from the farmers, who also offered their materials and equipment. However, we also experienced some difficulties, as some of the farmers we considered to be strategic did not want to take part. The Regional Administration of Piedmont invited us to talk about our project, as they are promoting more natural techniques in the fields: this gave us great publicity and shows the importance of working with local authorities in order to increase efficiency and win over the most skeptical farmers.

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