Often portrayed as a spooky fall decoration or a feared blood-sucking creature on TV and movies, these depictions give bats a bad reputation. What many do not realize is that this mysterious mammal plays an important and beneficial role in our environment. One bat can consume over 3,000 insects every night, keeping insect pest numbers in control. Bats save the farming industry millions of dollars on pesticides every year. Among birds, bees, and other insects, bats are also important pollinators for foods such as bananas, almonds, peaches, avocados, cashews, and other plants. Fruit-feeding bats also play a vital role in reforestation through seed dispersal in their excrement.
There are nine bat species in the state of Pennsylvania. One species, the Indiana bat, is now on the federal endangered species list, and another, the small-footed bat, is designated a “species of concern.” For decades, there has been an overall decline in bat populations, making the education and practice of bat conservation even more crucial.
Threats to the Bat Population
Habitat destruction and fragmentation has caused a steady decrease in the bat population and remains the primary threat to most species. Wind turbines, often placed near the same ridgetops that bats use to migrate or roost over the winter months, cause deadly collisions as bats often confuse them for a safe resting spot during migration. Another major threat to bat populations is white-nose syndrome. This fungal disease affects bats during hibernation and has killed more than 6 million bats since it first appeared in New York in 2006. A white fuzzy fungus grows on the nose, ears, and wings of infected bats doing serious damage to skin tissue. Much is still unknown about the disease, but it is thought that fat reserves utilized during hibernation are depleted long before spring because of increased winter arousals triggered by the irritating effects of the fungus. While primarily spread through bat-to-bat contact, the disease can also be transferred to bats from humans. In fact, it is believed that bats first contracted the disease from the clothing or equipment of a human.
What you can do
Bat conservation can start in your own backyard
- Add native plant species to increase the number of insects, providing more food for bats.
- Avoid the use of harmful pesticides which contaminate bats’ insect-based diet.
- Provide a water source (e.g., ponds, water troughs, puddles).
- Buy or build a bat box to provide a disease-free space for bats. Bat boxes do not attract bats, but they may help in diverting bats away from structures, such as homes, where they may not be welcome. Bat boxes should be placed in an open area 10-15 feet high, facing the south or southeast.
By reducing the overall disturbance to the natural bat habitat surrounding your home you can play a critical role in bat conservation efforts.
Penn State Agricultural Research and Cooperative Extension (http://extension.psu.edu)
National Wildlife Health Center (http://www.nwhc.usgs.gov)
Bat Conservation International (http://www.batcon.org/)