Most folks wouldn’t “bat an eye” if I described a beneficial mammal that typically consumes 1,000 mosquito-sized insects every night in the summer — until I mention that the animal is a bat. Bats conjure up many images or feelings in peoples’ minds, many of them negative. But, these mammals are important in so many ways and are threatened on so many fronts.
While Ohio’s bat species are insectivores (bug eaters), many bats worldwide are fruit or nectar eaters, which earn them high praise as pollinators of important crops like bananas, cashews and peaches. As reported by Bat Conservation International, “Throughout the United States, scientists estimate bats are worth more than $3.7 billion a year in reduced crop damage and pesticide use.” This is due to the bats’ appetite for insects and crop pests. Bat excrement, known as “guano,” is used as rich fertilizer in some countries. Other species of fruit-eating bats disperse seeds that help in the reforestation of cleared rainforests. I don’t know about you, but any animal that loves to eat mosquitoes is a friend of mine!
Bats are killed by cars, wind farm turbines, disturbance of their hibernation spots in winter, and a fungal disease called white-nose syndrome. This fungus invades the wing membranes and face of bats and leads to death. Scientists believe that the fungus makes the bats wake up and fly during hibernation, which depletes the bats’ fat stores (since no insects are available for food). Some states have reported mortality rates of 90% in bat populations.
There are two species of bats that one is likely to observe at night in this area. The little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus), with a wingspan of about 10 inches and weight of only a third of an ounce; and the big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus) with a wingspan of about 12 inches and a weight of half an ounce. Check out a street light some night where flying insects congregate – you may see a bat feeding there, too.
When observing bats, you have probably noticed that they dart around, seemingly flying erratically. Bats use “echolocation,” a process by which supersonic squeaks are uttered and the bats pick up the echoes of their squeaks bouncing off objects. This process helps bats fly away from obstacles or chase a meal. They grab insects in their cupped tail membranes, transferring the tasty morsel to their mouths all while in flight. This same echolocation process has since been employed in fish finders, boat sonar, and airplane radar.
One of my previous home sites had a large, two-story barn constructed of rough-cut wood. Some female bats took a liking to the eastern-facing eave on the barn and formed a maternity roost colony. Ohio bat females only give birth to one youngster, known as a pup, annually. The pups are born naked and blind, and when roosting, bats hang by their feet with their wing membranes closed.
I used to sit near the barn at dusk to watch the little brown bat females exit the roost to feed. Their pups would squeak with displeasure when their moms would venture out for a “bite.”
You may not have a large barn in which to host bats, but bat houses can be purchased or built. One of the important aspects of building a bat house is to employ roughed-up wood in the interior of the house so that the bats can move around easily. A bat house plan can be viewed at https://usfwsnortheast.files.wordpress.com/2017/10/bat-house-plans9-5-13.pdf.
One persistent myth is that bats like to fly into peoples’ hair. No, bats do not seek new careers as hairstylists. Additionally, bats are no more prone to rabies than other mammals, such as raccoons or skunks. However, should you find a bat lying on the ground, don’t touch it – the bat may be sick, could bite, and all Ohio bats have razor-sharp teeth.
Pest and insect exterminators, fruit and nut pollinators, and seed dispersers, these roles reflect what bats contribute to our society, agriculture, economy, and well-being. Learn more tips on how to get involved in protecting bats, the misunderstood creatures of the night, at http://www.batcon.org/.
Kim Marshall is the communication specialist for the Delaware Soil & Water Conservation District. For information, go to www.soilandwater.co.delaware.oh.us.