When Merlin discovered that he would have a day-long layover in Johannesburg, en route home from Zambia, he couldn’t resist contacting one of his favorite bat conservation colleagues, Dr. Peter Taylor. And, not surprisingly, Peter convinced him to extend his stay by several days.
On his first visit in 2000, Merlin and Peter had joined forces for a lecture and media tour which set a firm foundation for the country’s fledging bat conservation efforts. Photos from the trip were featured in Peter’s subsequent book, Bats of Southern Africa, and in a variety of media stories promoting bat values and needs.
In 2014, when Peter discovered that a wide range of bat species were attracted to feed on green stink bugs, the most costly pests of macadamia orchards, he invited Merlin to return. The goal–to provide the first high-speed photos documenting bats capturing stink bugs and share them with macadamia growers.
Counting on success, Peter arranged an opportunity for Merlin to share his photos of bats with growers at a meeting of the South African Macadamia Association. Seeing bats capturing stink bugs led to sponsorship of graduate student scholarships to support research on how to attract more bats to orchards. As word of benefits spread, bat houses have become popular.
Now the country’s apple growers are collaborating on research to explore how they may also benefit. Accompanied by a videographer, Joey Chapman, also returning from MTBC field work in Zambia, Merlin and Joey were met at the Johannesburg airport by Alexandra Howard one of Peter’s graduate students who is quite excited to be obtaining the first evidence in South Africa of bat consumption of apple orchard pests.
They visited two of her research sites, including her first successful bat house. It is occupied by 20-30 Cape Serotine Bats (Laephotis capensis). She is already collecting guano samples. These will be analyzed for remains of insect pests. She will rely on genetic analysis, called barcoding, to document bat values while another of Peter’s doctoral students, Monday Veli Mdluli, studies changing attitudes toward bats.
Merlin greatly enjoyed sharing his bat house knowledge with Alexandra. “Dr Merlin’s visit really assisted us in changing growers’ perceptions regarding the importance of bats,” Alexandra said, “and his expertise supported us in finding ways to improve our bat box designs, placement and hence their chances of successful occupancy! It was a privilege to show Dr Merlin some of the apple orchards we work with, introduce the growers to Dr Merlin and to get them to commit to helping find more “bat-friendly” farming practices.”
He also spoke to enthusiastic graduate students and professors at Peter’s Mountain Bat Lab-Afromontane Research Unit at the University of the Free State-QwaQwa Campus. He was especially impressed with several student presentations of their thesis research.
That evening, he served as the featured speaker for a “Bat Tie” fundraiser event in Clarens. Alexandra and Monday were especially pleased. Funds from the well-attended event will support the publication of a bilingual children’s bat book. It will be widely available in schools in both English and the local Sesotho language.
The following morning, Peter and his wife Frances, drove Merlin and Joey back to the airport in Johannesburg, a four-hour drive with their several hundred pounds of field gear. The return to the United States took two exhausting nights and a day, but the trip was well worth it!