SARChI Chair University of Venda

The University of Venda based South African Research Chair in Biodiversity and Change in the Vhembe Biosphere Reserve is a vibrant hub for biodiversity science, training and conservation application in the Southern African Development Community – a body of established and emerging researchers, postgraduate and postdoctoral candidates. The Research Chair, co-hosted by the Centre for Invasion Biology at the University of Stellenbosch, is funded by the Department of Science and Technology and administered by the National Research Foundation.




2017 Blitz dates are 24 & 25 November and 2 & 3 December

Do you know what pollinates baobab flowers?  Bet you thought it was bats, but scientists have never seen bats visiting baobab flowers in Southern Africa.  We have a theory that both hawk moths and bats play a role in pollination.  But we need to find out if this is true.

Scientists from the University of Venda and Texas Tech University (USA), hosted by the Vhembe Biosphere Reserve, began to solve this mystery in November 2016 and will be repeating the Blitz in 2017.   They will be using Citizen Science methods to collect data on flower visitation rates.  This means that members of the public, are again being asked to help collect this critical data. Download the summary of the 2016 findings: 2016 Baobab Blitz Summary

Get your friends and family involved!  Have a special evening under a baobab tree and help us collect the information we need to answer: “What is pollinating baobab flowers?

How can you participate:

When:24 & 25 November and 2 & 3 December 2017 (do one or more nights or weekends)

Where: Any baobab tree in Limpopo (Alldays, Vivo, Waterpoort, Mopani, Musina, Tshipise, Pafuri)

How: Sit under one baobab tree from 6pm to 12pm and record what is coming to the flowers.  We will send you a form for you to complete which will allow you to record bat, hawk moth and other possible visitors to the flowers.

Register: Send us an email, whats app, facebook message or sms so that we can register you and send you information on how to collect the information.

Download the 2017 Baobab Blitz Datasheet

Download the 2017 Baobab Blitz Data Collection Instructions

To register, download the 2017 Baobab Blitz Registration Form and send the completed form to Cathy Vise at [email protected]

Facebook: Baobab Blitz

Download the 2017 Baobab Blitz Flyer

What you will need:

  • Strong torch (with extra batteries)
  • Chairs
  • Drinks (water, cool drink, wine and beer (please don’t drink too much)
  • Cell phone camera (to take a photo of your tree) or a normal camera that you can upload the photo.
  • GPS or Smart phone to record your location (lat and long) or the farm name and where the tree is located.
  • Clipboard with pen (extra one just in case)
  • Recording sheets (we will email these to you)
  • Long measuring (10m/15m/20m) tape (to measure the girth of the tree)
  • Watch or phone (to record time)

Feed back

You will receive feed back on what we have found shortly after of the event.   Follow us on facebook or join our mailing list to receive feedback on your contribution.


What can I do if I am not available that weekend?

You are welcome to collect the data on other night instead.

Baobabs in South Africa

There is only one species of baobab in mainland Africa, known scientifically as Adansonia digitata.  Baobabs occur in a wide distribution from West Africa to East Africa to Southern Africa.  The baobabs in Limpopo Province are the most southerly baobabs in Africa.   The interesting biodiversity of our Limpopo Province has attracted researchers from around the globe to visit our area.

What do we already know?

We know that baobabs in East and West Africa are being pollinated by bats.  There have been many observations and even video footage of bats visiting baobab flowers in these parts of Africa. Baobab flowers are the perfect “design” for bat pollination. They are large, white flowers that open at sunset and are open for the whole night.  The nectar is conveniently placed behind the petals forcing bats to rub their abdomens on the pollen-bundle while drinking the nectar. The pollen sticks to their fur and then when the bats visit the next flower the pollen is transferred to the female stigma of the new flower. In this way cross-pollination occurs.

Hawkmoths are also common visitors of baobab flowers, also to drink the nectar.  Some hawkmoths don’t land on the flower, but “steal’ the nectar by hovering next to the flower and pushing their long proboscises into the petals with out picking up pollen.  Other hawk moths settle on the flowers when drinking nectar and the pollen sticks to their abdomen, which is in turn transferred to the next flower.

In order to successfully pollinate the ovules, baobab flowers must receive pollen from other trees (cross-pollination).  They cannot be pollinated by pollen from flowers on the same tree (self-pollination).  This is another reason why bats would be better pollinators than hawk moths.  Bats are stronger flyers and would visit flowers on different trees and trees that are further away from each other.  Whereas hawk moths tend to visit a number of flowers on the same tree before flying to another tree close by.

The implications of bat versus hawk moth pollination

It is predicted that flowers pollinated by hawk moths may have smaller fruit and lower genetic diversity than bat-pollinated flowers.  This would have both an economic impact on the value of the fruit, which hundreds of people in Africa rely on, and an ecological impact on the genetic diversity of the seed and recruitment of future populations of baobabs.

Which bats could pollinate baobab flowers?

Only Fruit Bats can pollinate baobab flowers.  Insectivorous bats can fly though the branches of the tree in pursuit of their insect dinner, but do not land on the flowers.

The difference between fruit bats and insectivorous bats

Fruit Bats:

  • Eat fruit and nectar
  • Larger that insectivorous bats (usually)
  • Do not echolocate
  • Our ears can detect their “ping ping” calls.
  • Forage for many hours throughout the night.

Insectivorous bats:

  • Eat insects
  • Use echolocation
  • Call is above most peoples hearing
  • Usually smaller and faster flying than fruit bats.
  • Tend to forage most just after sunset and again before sunrise

The most common fruit bats in our area are:

Wahlberg’s epauletted fruit bat (Epomophorus wahlbergi) and

Gambian epauletted fruit bat (Epomophorus gambianus)

These bats are very similar to each other. Most of us know these bats from the metallic-sounding “ping ping” calls that they make at night. They are often found along river systems and in gardens and roast (sleep/rest) in trees.

The Egyptian fruit bat (Rousettus egyptiacus).

In flight they are difficult to tell apart from the epauletted bats as they are only slightly bigger.  However, unlike the epauletted bats, they roost in caves, not trees.  Caves known to have Egyptian fruit bats are found in the Soutpansberg mountains.

Straw-coloured flying foxes (Eidolon helvum)

Straw-coloured flying foxes are the biggest bats in our area.  They are easy to distinguish from the other fruit bats by their huge size.  They commonly occur in equatorial Africa and only visit South Africa on migration. They feed on garden fruits, like mangos and bananas, figs and baobab flowers.

Hawkmoths (Afrikaans: Pylstertmot)

Hawkmoths are large, powerful and fast flying moths.

They feed on nectar with their long proboscis.  Often we know them as “sun-downer moths” or “booze moths” as they like to sit on the edge of our wine glass and drink wine with their proboscis.  There are a number of species and thus far we have identified Sphingomorpha chlorea (booze moth) and Nephele comma (Comma moth).  Their eyes shine red when you shine a torch onto it and they are shy of torch light.

Citizen Science

Citizen science is when members of the public help collect scientific information that helps researchers answer important ecological, social and economic questions.

Project Team

Macy Madden, the Lead Scientist, is based at Texas Tech University and is undertaking her PhD research on bat pollination.

Cathy Vise, the Co-ordinating Scientist, is a PhD Candidate with the SARCHI Chair. Her core research interest is in engaging stakeholders in biodiversity conservation through taking action on the management and control of invasive alien plants, using the Vhembe Biosphere Reserve as a case study.

Sarah Venter of the EcoProducts Foundation is partnering with the project.