People Helping Bats and Bats Helping People

In Global Perspectives, Maps101 by

While many people think bats are mysterious or scary, scientists want to show that bats are not only harmless to humans, but can help them by controlling insect populations. This big brown bat appeared at a Bat Fest in Hannibal, Missouri, in 2016.

While many people think bats are mysterious or scary, scientists want to show that bats are not only harmless to humans, but they can help people by controlling insects. This big brown bat appeared at Bat Fest in Hannibal, Missouri, in 2016.

People find bats to be strange. Like other mammals, bats nurse their young, yet they don’t walk on four legs. Bats fly like birds, yet they don’t have feathers. The fact that bats are seen only at night and roost in dark places, like caves, tunnels, and old buildings, adds to their mystery.

Bat Legends

People around the world tell stories and legends to explain why bats are so different from other animals. In one of Aesop’s Fables, a bat borrows money which it cannot repay. The bat decides to hide during the day to avoid its creditors. A legend from the Pacific island of Fiji, claims that bats arose after a rat stole the wings of a heron. Another story, from the Creek in North America, tells that when a bat asked to play with some birds, they refused. The other animals, however, accepted the bat, but they gave it teeth to make it seem more animal-like. When the birds competed against the other animals in a game, the bat used its new teeth to hold the ball, allowing their team to defeat the birds.

The Organization for Bat Conservation in Pontiac, Michigan, wants to make bats seems a little less mysterious and strange. Instead of thinking of them as scary or as pests, this group wants to show that bats are not dangerous to humans. In fact, bats are important in keeping down insect populations.

“People don’t like bats,” admits Amanda Bevan, who heads the organization’s Urban Bat Project. “They might appreciate them, but they want to appreciate bats from afar.”

Bats in the City

Bevan knew that if she wanted people to help bats, she had to convince them that bats weren’t scary. She organized a series of Bat Fests in cities throughout the Midwest. At Bat Fests, people get to meet live bats as well as participate in crafts and games. They also learn about some of the dangers humans pose to bats. There are Bat Fests scheduled on August 19 in Minneapolis, Minnesota; August 26 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; September 16 in Turahoe, Indiana; and September 23 in Detroit, Michigan.

Carole Wrubel is someone who changed her mind about bats. Wrubel is community engagement coordinator for the Michigan Science Center in Detroit. Her opinion of bats changed after seeing one of the Organization for Bat Conservation’s presentations.

“The people there were so passionate about bats,” she explains. “I knew nothing about bats. I’ve never seen a bat in the wild. And I walked away and said, ‘bats are really cool.'”

In addition to the Bat Fests, the Organization for Bat Conservation’s Urban Bat Project is working with partners in 10 cities to make cities more welcoming to bats. Through the project and its partners, people can learn how to build a bat house or grow gardens containing bat-friendly plants. People can also go on evening hikes where they use a special device that allows them to detect bats’ high-pitched calls. Through these measures, the project hopes to make cities better able to support bats.

White Nose Syndrome

The main reason why scientists are especially concerned about bats right now is the rise of a disease called white nose syndrome. The disease is caused by a white fungus that can be seen on bats’ noses, wings, ears, or tails. This fungus can disrupt bats’ winter hibernation. Bats who have the fungus wake more frequently during hibernation and may even fly out to feed on cold winter nights. Because the bats can run out of energy, they may die before winter ends.

White nose syndrome is very dangerous to bats. A study in 2011 showed that bat populations in the U.S. East Coast had fallen 88 percent since the fungus was first detected in 2007. Wrubel says that white nose syndrome is “the worst wildlife disease that we’ve ever seen in North America.”

White nose syndrome is a problem mostly for bats in rural areas. Bats in rural areas tend in roost in large numbers, which allows the fungus to spread while they sleep. White nose syndrome is less of a problem in urban areas. City bats usually do not roost in large groups, meaning the fungus has less of a chance to spread. The Urban Bat Project hopes that if people can create refuges for bats in cities, urban bat populations will increase as rural bat populations decline. Bats seem to adapt well to city life. They take advantage of warm buildings and lights that attract tasty insects.

If bats disappear, scientists say, humans will definitely notice. Bats help keep down insect populations. The most common bat in cities, the big brown bat, can eat as many as 5,000 insects in a single night! Bats are also important in rural areas, and farmers rely on them. Bats feast on agricultural pests like the corn earworm and spotted cucumber beetle, saving farmers billions of dollars each year on pesticides.

Scientists find that bats who roost in caves are more likely to contract white nose disease than their urban counterparts who roost in buildings or tunnels. Here, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientist inspects a healthy bat.

Scientists find that bats who roost in caves are more likely to contract white nose disease than their urban counterparts which roost in buildings or tunnels. Here, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientist inspects a healthy bat.

Blind as a Bat?

Bats, like humans, are mammals. They are covered in fur and nurse their babies, which are called pups.

Bats live on every continent except Antarctica. There are about 1,000 species of bats. The smallest, called a bumblebee bat, lives in Thailand, and is about the size of a human thumb. The largest are called flying foxes, which live in Australia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Although flying foxes can have a wingspan as wide as six feet, there is no need to worry about being attacked by this creature. It is only interested in snacking on nectar, pollen, or fruit.

A popular expression is to say that someone is “as blind as a bat.” The truth is, bats see very well. Unlike humans, however, bats are active at night when it is dark. Since they cannot rely on their eyes to hunt at night, they find insects to eat by using something called echolocation. Through echolocation, bats generate sounds that are so high in pitch that humans can’t hear them. When these sound waves reach an insect, the waves bounce back, which allows the bat to know that a meal is nearby.

A good time to see bats is during warm weather when the sun is going down. Look up and you may see some flying animals. Pay attention to streetlights since these can attract the insects bats like to eat. How can you tell that what you are seeing is a bat and not a bird? Bats fly differently from the way birds do. Instead of swooping and gliding like birds, they fly in a more erratic or unpredictable pattern.

Additional Resources

Read more about how people are trying to protect bats at Great Lakes Echo and the Organization for Bat Conservation.

The Organization for Bat Conservation rescues bats that are too unhealthy to live in the wild. See a live video feed of their vampire bats and their fruit bats.

Learn how to build a bat house at the National Wildlife Federation.

Images and Sources

Big brown bat photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Midwest
Big brown bat photo license: Creative Commons 2.0

Bat in cave photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Bat in cave photo license: Creative Commons 2.0