Bats: Nature’s flying bug zappers

Gray bat believed to have succumbed to White Nose Syndrome(Published in the Gettysburg Times, 11/15/2013)

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Bats are cool. They hibernate in winter, and in warmer months pump their leathery wings in pursuit of tons of, to me, bothersome bugs. Without bats, I’d miss out on the entertainment of the little critters flapping around the vacant lot next door, and instead spend my evening outdoor time swatting mosquitoes, masking the scent of forest with the aroma of citronella.

In one place I lived, a decade or so ago, we had a bat sharing our domicile. No sign of him during the day, but come night he’d flap around the bedroom. At first, my spouse didn’t like the idea, and wanted to catch him in a towel to take him outside.

But she soon figured out she had a better chance of the flying bug zapper hitting her as she tried to catch him than had she just lay back and enjoyed the show. It was a lesson she didn’t take long to learn, and the evening program was, indeed, fun – though after several nights, the little guy must have decided we didn’t have sufficient food supply inside, so he went out.

They navigate by radar: rapid, high speed sound pulses they send out to bounce back from their prey. We humans developing a gun that can track and destroy several missiles simultaneously have nothing on bats, which can, in their seemingly random flutterings, deliberately target and suck down missiles – er, insects, one after another, for hours at a time.

“Some can take an insect off a tree leaf ,” Aura Stauffer, a wildlife biologist with the Pa. Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, told me this week.

I would like to see that.

Marguerita  aficionados will appreciate Nectar Bats. They range from southeastern Arizona to south of Mexico, and have long tongues and snouts that function similarly to hummingbirds. They drink nectar, and are the primary pollinators of several cactus and agave species, which are used to make tequila.

One report I read recently said a single bat can devour up to 1,200 mosquitoes an hour. It is said that one colony of Big Brown bats can eat 1.3 million insects a year. That’s a lot of West Nile Virus carriers turned into bat guano. And that’s a pile of money farmers do not need spend on insecticides – another study, published in 2011, reported that farmers in the northeast spent $3.7 billion controlling insects not eaten by bats killed by a fungus-based affliction called White Nose Syndrome.

The white fungus flourishes in cold caves, which is where bats hibernate. Of course, the fungus exists during warmer outdoor temperatures, as well, but in winter, while bats are sleeping, bugs also are not flying around.

The fungus irritates the sleeping bats, waking them. Out they fly in search of food, which they can’t find, and they starve to death.

There are an estimated 10 million Gray bats, yet the little critters are federally listed as endangered. That seems a large number, but all those bats winter over in only nine caves. If just one of those caves is infected …

They’re special in the animal kingdom for another reason. They are the only mammal that can actually fly. There are a couple others that can glide from place to place, climb up and glide again, but bats are alone in being able to flap their wings and stay aloft.

Halloween is past, the last day – or night – most of us think about the flying rodents. But it is good to know, when the too-long sought bug season returns, so too will the winged bug zappers. When they return, don’t swat at them; you will miss. Know that its target is not you, but the mosquito humming around your ear that is his target.

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