Bats are not blind rabies-infested vermin that will suck your blood and entangle themselves in your hair.
What they are, obviously, is misunderstood. And, sadly, threatened.
Rob Mies got interested in bats while a student at Eastern Michigan University almost 20 years ago.
“Over the years I became fascinated with how important bats are and how much people don’t know,” he says. “If they learn just a little bit of information about them, people become pro-bat. Or just not hate them.”
Mies educates folks as founder and director of the Organization for Bat Conservation at the Cranbrook Institute of Science in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, where he teaches the importance of bats and dispels those old wives’ tales. He has also co-written two books: “Beginner’s Guide To Bats” (Little, Brown and Co.) and “Understanding Bats” (Bird Watchers Digest).
“We present at schools, museums, nature centers,” he says. “We’re focused on educating people.”
For the record, he says, bats can see, their rate of rabies is less than half a percent, there are vampire bats but they are small and nothing like you see in the movies, and bats don’t dive into your hair.
Here’s another: They’re not just a bunch of pretty faces. Mies says some of the bats the organization uses in its presentations—they are older bats or ones that were injured and rescued but can’t be returned to the wild—have learned to recognize certain presenters and will call out, asking to be picked up.
“They’re as smart, almost, as some primates,” he says. “I know them to be pretty intelligent. They have different personalities as well.”
Ask Mies about bats, and he’s off and running. Unfortunately, a lot of the news he has isn’t good.
North America’s bat population is being decimated by white-nose syndrome, a fungus found in 2006 in New York that seems to disrupt bats’ hibernation. It has been found in 16 states and three Canadian provinces and is spreading.
“It’s going to be devastating,” Mies says. “It’s going through Pennsylvania, Indiana. In places it has been found—Vermont, New York—we’re seeing 90, 95 percent mortality. So, unfortunately, we’re going to see a huge die-off.”
The disease is largely in the eastern U.S. and Canada right now, but it is slowly spreading west and south. Bat Conservation International (batcon.org), an organization that sponsors research and education programs, says that the bat population across the U.S. is at risk.
“It’s been projected that over the next 16 years, they’ll be regionally extinct,” Mies says. “There was a cave in Vermont that had 16,000 bats. Now, zero.”
And what’s bad for bats may be bad for people.
“With millions of bats dying — literally, millions — we don’t know what the impact will be. A bat eats 2,000 to 6,000 insects a night, and some of them, certain beetles and moths, are agricultural pests.”
New research, which may help scientists develop strategies to help bats, was released earlier this week. Go to fws.gov/whitenosesyndrome.
There are about 40 species of bats in North America, the most common being the little brown bat. There are more than 1,100 species worldwide, according to Phil Richardson in his excellent book “Bats” (Firefly). Some bats can live 30 years or more in captivity. The biggest bat in the world is the giant flying fox, which can have a 6-foot wingspan, and the smallest is the Kitti’s hog-nosed bat, about the size of a large bumblebee. Scientists earlier this year announced the discovery of a plant in the Cuban rain forest that has acoustically shaped leaves that work with a bat’s sonar, drawing the bat to it and facilitating pollination.
How Important are Bats?
Plenty. Bats have three main benefits: insect control, pollination and the spreading of seeds.
Bats eat 50 to 100 percent of their weight in insects each night — mostly mosquitoes—and fruit bats can eat 2½ times their weight. All that fruit includes seeds, which get scattered when the bat does his business. Even their poop, guano, is valuable as a fertilizer because of its high nitrogen content. Bats also help pollinate plants, eat moths that produce caterpillars that feast on gardens, and are part of the food chain — food for hawks, owls, eagles and snakes, while some eat rodents or scorpions.
A study published this year in Science magazine stated that insect-eating bats saved the U.S. agricultural industry at least $3 billion a year, with some estimates of more than $50 billion.
Gardeners, Take Note
A colony of bats will do wonders if you have an insect problem, Mies says. There are a couple of things gardeners can do to encourage bat populations.
Spray as little pesticide as possible. If you have room on your property and it’s safe, leave up dead and dying trees; they’re the best habitat for bats. And next season, plant night-blooming flowers, such as the evening primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa), which will attract moths and other insects for your colony’s dining pleasure.
To the Bat Pole!
Want to be the coolest homeowner in your neighborhood? Or would you like to give your garden a boost? Set up a bat house.
A bat house can be home to a couple hundred bats, females and their offspring usually, from spring through fall. They can be set up on a pole or side of a building—trees generally aren’t a good idea—15 to 20 feet off the ground, in an open location where they get at least 6 hours of sun a day.
“Food, they’ll find. But a place for them to live is the key thing,” Mies says. “Unfortunately, people often chase them from their house or kill them in the barn, so they need somewhere to go.”
Bat houses are readily available, but those sold at home improvement centers often don’t meet bats’ standards and don’t attract the animals. Instead, check out the bat houses sold by the Organization for Bat Conservation, which get up to an 80 percent occupancy rate. Several sizes are available at batconservation.org ($38-$72), or you can buy plans to build your own.
Mies says it’s adults, not kids, who tend to be spooked by bats.
“There have been a lot of great books, especially children’s books, to come out. One, “Stellaluna” (Harcourt Children’s Books) by Jannell Cannon, tells a decent story about bats, that they’re not bloodthirsty killers. Things like that have really helped kids be less fearful of bats.”
Want More Bats?
The Year of the Bat is a two-year global species awareness initiative from the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals and the Agreement on the Conservation of Populations of European Bats. Learn more at yearofthebat.org.
©2011 the Chicago Tribune