Extension@YourService: The Softer Side to the Season’s Mascot

— Written By and last updated by Leeann Crump

Bats are frequently maligned and misunderstood creatures, whose presence, interpreted in rubber or paper, is obligatory at any Halloween party. Whereas Western culture takes a dim view of bats, associating them with evil, witchcraft, and disease, other cultures view bats in a more positive light: In Egypt bats were believed to protect against diseases such as blindness, and for the Chinese, bats represent health, happiness and good fortune. Positive bat images on clothing, furniture, art and more attest to their faith in the benefit of bat associations.

In reality bats are a valuable part of the ecosystem, serving an important role in pest control as well as plant pollinators, depending on the species. Perhaps surprisingly, bats make up a quarter of all mammals on the planet, with over 1,000 different species living in a diversity of environments. Bats are found everywhere on the globe except for the poles and the most extreme deserts. Bats are relatively long lived, especially for a small mammal: the average brown bat lives about 30 years. They are closely related to primates, and females typically have only one offspring at a time, called a pup. Other small mammals similar in size to bats such as rabbits, cats, and rats, have a much higher birth rate – think of a litter of kittens. The slow rate of bat reproduction makes them particularly vulnerable to the possibility of extinction. In fact, more than half of the bat species in the US are either in severe decline or listed as endangered. In many parts of the world, their existence is threatened by habitat loss, human persecution, and disease. White nose syndrome is a fungal disease devastating bats in the United States and Canada. A recent effort to help bats combat the white nose syndrome involves inoculating bats with a bacterium that appears to stop the development of the disease. The bats treated with the bacterium were released back into the wild, in the hope that other bats can become protected by the bacterium and the fungal disease slowed. In spite of their reputation, bats rarely contract rabies, which occurs in less than .5 percent of healthy populations. Weak or sick bats, those on the ground or that can’t fly, and thus more likely to come in contact with humans, tend to have a higher rate infection of rabies, about 6%.

In temperate climates such as North America, where bats hibernate during the winter, bats are primarily insect feeders, with most of their activity occurring during the warm months. They are predators of night flying insects such as cockroaches, mosquitos and gnats. A single brown bat can eat over 1000 mosquitoes in one hour! Bats may eat up to a half of their body weight in a single night; extrapolated over a season, with a reasonable bat population of 50,000 bats over 100 miles, we’re talking the consumption of 13 tons of insects! That’s serious pest control!

Habitat conservation is critical to bat survival. Bat habitat includes both foraging and roosting areas. Bats spend a large portion of their lives roosting, and natural sites such as rock crevices and tree cavities are often used, although more protected sites such as caves are needed for hibernating in winter. Foraging areas such as beaver ponds, seasonal pools and other permanently wet areas support insect populations on which bats feed. Consider maintaining cavity trees, old stone chimneys or other potential roosting sites where they exist. Installing bat houses on your property may keep bats from roosting in your attic. Plans for building bat houses and directions for proper siting can be found on the internet. Keep bats out of your house by ensuring the small crevices – around chimneys, fascia boards, and the like – filled in with insulation or use screening to keep bats out. If bats are discovered during breeding season, allow the pups to be raised and leave the roost before closing it off, or the pups will die inside. If a bat gets inside the house, often opening a window and leaving the room, shutting the bat inside, will give the animal time to escape. However, if a bat is found in a room with a sleeping person, that bat should be kept in the room and a pest control professional called to capture the animal. The bat should be tested for rabies to ensure the sleeping person was not exposed. Time is of the essence for treatment if a person has been exposed to the virus. Testing the bat for rabies – if test result is negative for the virus – may enable the individual to avoid the painful and costly treatment they would have to otherwise undergo.

Enjoy your rubber bats swinging from string at your Halloween parties, but remember they are valuable – and vulnerable – ecosystem warriors as well.