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BATS: HELPFUL OR HARMFUL?

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Bat flying through the woods
Bat on a leaf

For a lot of people, there is something about bats that just kind of makes their skin crawl. You probably wouldn’t envision a bat as being a shy, gentle and intelligent creature but they are. They have an average lifespan of 25-40 years and they generally have 1 pup per year.

A lot of the uneasy feelings people have about this flying mammal come from myths. In fact, many people go through their life without ever seeing a bat. Bats are nocturnal so they tend to come out at night, while most of us are sleeping.

While many have been taught to believe bats are blind, a lot of them aren’t. In fact, many species of bats can see as well as we can. While we often think of bats as swooping towards people they are actually capable of traveling at very high rates of speed using a sonar-like system to navigate through the dark. Their sonar can tell them how close they are to something, how fast that object is moving and the size it is. You may have even heard horror stories about bats swooping down and getting entangled in hair when in actuality, they don’t do that either. If you ever do see a bat (which is rare), and it swoops down towards you, it’s not trying to get you, it’s likely trying to get the bugs around you.

Bats get a bum deal. Thought of as blood suckers and destroyers of fruit, bats are seen as frightening pests when in fact almost all are beneficial. Those scary, Halloween blood sucking bats? Out of some 1,000 species only three actually take blood from mammals. And those live only in the Central American tropics. Most of the fruit bats live in the tropics as well.

Small bat being held by scientist

Pest Control
Most bats in the United States feed exclusively on insects. A bat feasting on moths, mosquitos, beetles and other insects can eat one half of its body weight in one night! A single brown bat can eat between 600 and 1,000 flying insects in an hour, some 5,000 in a single night. And not all insects that bats eat fly. They’ll also pluck tomato hornworms, cucumber beetles, codling moths, earworms (like the kind you find in corn) and stink bugs. A typical summer colony of 100 bats feeding 200 days will consume more than 2,200 pounds of insects or about 600,000,000 bugs!

Pollinators
Some smaller bats also feed on pollen and flower nectar. Like bees, they’re pollinators. Most of these bats also live south of the border and pollinate such fruits as guava, avocados, bananas, and mangoes. The lesser long tongued bat and the Mexican long tongued bat, both pollinators, migrate into the American southwest and California. Both, sadly, are on the endangered species list.

Prey
Just as some bats rely on thousands of insects each night for survival, other animals in the ecosystem rely on bats for their calories. Hawks, falcons, and owls eat bats, and mammals like weasels, ringtail cats, and raccoons sometimes attack bats while they roost.

Colony of bats hanging

Are bats a danger to humans?
People tend to believe that bats are like rodents, that all bat species are similar, that they commonly carry dangerous diseases and that they seek to interact with humans. But bats are not closely related to rodents and they are an incredibly diverse order of animals. Generally, no, bats do not endanger people. Bats CAN be carriers of diseases and rabies, but these diseases are not a danger to humans unless people come into contact with bat blood or saliva – a rare occurrence in the U.S. There have been 15 case of rabies transmission from bats in the last 50 years. Rabies can be contracted from almost any mammal species, but is commonly reported in bats, raccoons, skunks and foxes.

Most bats try to stay as far away from humans as possible, but this is made more challenging as we continue to take away their habitat. Many bat species prefer to roost in the shaggy bark of dead trees, but as there are fewer trees available, the bats may find their only shelter in people’s attics, sheds and garages. This puts them in close proximity to humans where unwanted interactions may occur.

In fact, bat numbers across America are in decline. The reasons are many but almost all have to do with human activity. Much of this is because of loss of habitat. Many bats live in caves which are subject to vandalism. Other roosting bats are losing their habitat to timber harvesting and land clearing. Pesticides are also a huge killer of bats. A disease — White Nose Syndrome (WNS) — first introduced to this country in 2006, is also a major factor, killing some 6 million bats a year.

One thing we can do is provide bat houses near our garden to encourage bats to live there. About the same size as a bird house, bat houses can host dozens of bats (remember, most bats are small). Sunny with Thunderstorms offers several styles and sizes of bat houses. A bat house, by providing a preferable alternative, will also discourage bats from roosting in your attic or garage. If you install a bat house outside, be patient. It may take bats a season or two to find the house and move in.

Inspiration
Some of bats' unique features like membrane wings and echolocation have inspired technological advances in engineering. Drones that have thin and flexible bat-like wings are are in the works as well as tiny, more efficient sonar systems for navigation. The wingsuits used by basejumpers take more than a few cues from bats' aerodynamic bodies.

Because bat species are able to withstand and survive infection with many viruses, there is a lot of interest in researching how their immune systems respond to these infections.


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  • JoEllen Urasky