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Befriending Bats

Attract bats as natural pest control for yards, gardens and fields.

By Jan Wiese-Fales | Photos By 79 Photography / NJnightsky / ©istockphoto.com

Bats are beneficial allies of gardeners and farmers, consuming hundreds of insect pests each hour on nocturnal feeding flights above yards, gardens and fields.

“There is abundant evidence now, with more studies coming out, demonstrating bats are important for agriculture,” says Gary McCracken, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Tennessee, and one of the world’s leading experts on bats. His research has shed new light on insect mobility and the role bats play in decreasing their numbers.

“In the U.S. and Canada, huge numbers of pest insects are migratory. They won’t survive harsh winters, and depend on seasonal migration. They take advantage of wind jets at thousands of feet above the ground to go south in the winter and north in the summer—trillions of migrating insects. And there are millions of bats feeding on them every night,” McCracken says.

Estimates indicate bats reduce crop insect damage and related pesticide use in the United States by at least $3.7 billion annually.

Nothing to Fear

Widely shared, yet inaccurate myths about their habits and behaviors have made bats one of the most misunderstood and maligned creatures on the planet. In truth, the small winged mammals prefer to have as little human contact as possible.

Most of the 40-plus bat species native to the U.S. and Canada feed on insects, including mosquitoes. A few bats’ dining preferences make them important pollinators in desert climates, where they feed on insects attracted to night-blooming plants. Only three bat species out of the more than 1,300 species worldwide make meals from small amounts of animal blood, and none of those three inhabit areas north of Latin America.

While all bats can see, most don’t locate insect prey by sight. They use echolocation instead, emitting high-frequency sounds inaudible to humans to locate their meals.

Be Bat-Friendly

Loss of habitat is one of the greatest threats to bats. A fungal disease commonly known as white nose syndrome (WNS) also is decimating their populations, and human persecution takes its toll, too. “Many bats live in caves or wooded areas where they roost in foliage and tree hollows,” McCracken says. “But increasingly, they are taking up habitation near humans.” Another way of looking at the situation is that we are moving closer to them and their dwindling habitat.

Nonetheless, there is no reason to kill bats roosting in attics or in outbuildings, McCracken adds. If they must be evicted, put up a bat habitat nearby before shooing them out. And, he advises, “If a bat is in your living space, you should have it removed or remove and release it, but don’t touch it with your bare hands.”