Endangered bats concern farmers
Bats are dying by the hundreds of thousands in caves across the eastern part of the country. But in spite of their unfavorable reputation, bats contribute to the human environment.
Bats keep down the numbers of night-flying insects like mosquitoes, which can transfer West Nile virus to humans. Farmers depend heavily on bats to eat insects that would otherwise destroy their crops. Without bats protecting their fields, farmers would be forced to heavily spray their crops with pesticides, the costs of which would be passed on to the consumer.
The U.S. Agricultural Department has reported that bats save farmers $1 billion per year in crop damage and pesticide costs.
Regardless of their benefit to humans, UH biology professor Blaine Cole said asking ‘How do bats help me?’ is missing the point.
“You have to regard bats as a part of a natural world that is actually interesting and valuable to have around,” Cole said. “Bats themselves are absolutely fascinating creatures. Their benefits are not so much in terms of the dollar value that we can place on them, as is the value of maintaining their place in the ecosystem.”
Cole said he thinks that there is more to fear from raccoons carrying rabies or “scary dogs” than bats.
At a conference last summer in Austin, where the world’s largest urban bat colony is located, scientists released a statement noting that the million bats lost to White Nose Syndrome since 2006 could have eaten nearly 700,000 tons of insects in a single year.
Disease experts are calling the WNS white fungus that grows on the noses and wings of infected bats was first discovered in a cave in Albany, N.Y. in 2006, and has since spread south and west into 11 states. The mysterious ailment causes hibernating bats to wake too early in winter when there are not enough insects to eat, their wings covered with lesions that inhibit their ability to hunt and the bats to starve in rates as high as 100 percent per cave.
While Texas is not currently one of the directly infected states, officials say there is no telling how far the fast-spreading disease will reach if left unchecked. Making $1.9 million available for research of WNS in February, the federal government classified Louisiana, Texas’ immediate neighbor to the east, as an area “determined susceptible to WNS.”
In May 2009, Austin-based Bat Conservation International founder Merlin Tuttle told the Tulsa World that, “it’s not safe to say that any of our bats are safe at this point.”
Mylea Bayless is a conservation biologist at BCI. She said although scientists in Texas are optimistic that the state’s warmer climate and shorter winter will keep WNS from coming here.
However, there are still risks involved.
“We’re worried that fungal spores could get on the clothing and gear of people and that people could transport them long distances and create new epicenters (of WNS) by taking the spores with them,” Bayless said.
She added that since the disease is moving so quickly, the bats themselves seem to be the primary means of conveyance for the fungus, transporting it during their migration. And although bats may not migrate directly to Texas from an infected area, they could pass it to bats in Missouri or Arkansas that share roosts with bats that do migrate here.
“They’re really not an animal that needs to be feared,” Bayless said. “They’re shy and quiet; they’re just trying to fly around and eat bugs and leave everybody alone.”