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Biology researchers studying if bats can help control pests at apple orchards

  • Grand Valley researchers are studying whether bats can help control pests in apple orchards.
  • The fine mesh netting is set up in an orchard for catching bats for research.
  • A captured bat is placed in a specialized bag and released after one hour per approved research protocols.
  • Samples of waste from bats placed in specialized bags and released after one hour.

Posted on November 07, 2019

A Grand Valley graduate student is conducting research with a biology faculty member to see if the robust insect-consuming benefits of bats can extend to pest control in apple orchards.

The research done by student Randi Lesagonicz under the supervision of Amy Russell, associate professor of biology, has also received backing from a competitive grant awarded through a regional division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Lesagonicz, who is pursuing a master's degree in biology, is working with about a half dozen orchards in southern Michigan to check bat waste for evidence of pests that affect orchards; in particular, Lesagonicz is looking for codling moths, apple maggots and tarnished plant bugs.

"If we can demonstrate the bats are eating these insect pests, that may lead to different alternatives to spraying or reducing the amount of time of spraying, which is more environmentally friendly and less expensive for the farmers," Russell said.

Russell came upon the idea for this research while researching bat consumption of aquatic insects. While studying the animals' waste, Russell detected representation of the pests found in orchards.

For the field work at the orchards, Lesagonicz sets up very fine mesh nets as darkness falls to try to capture a bat. If successful, Lesagonicz frees the animal from the netting and places it in a specialized bag in hopes it will defecate. Approved research protocols call for the bat to be held for an hour before release.

Lesagonicz, who will conduct the research another one to two years to round out the sample size, has been encouraged by the interactions with orchard owners, who often like to hear updates about ways to attract bats to their properties.

As for the research subject, bats intrigue Lesagonicz for a simple reason: "They're a flying mammal." And as a student interested in wildlife research, this animal's effect on the environment, from pollination to reforestation, is particularly fascinating to Lesagonicz.

"In general they have so many different roles that you don't even know about," Lesagonicz said. "They're a small mammal, they live the longest of any mammal their size and their whole niche in life is so different from anything else."