By Gary Kenny
Behold: bats, mammalian order Chiroptera, one of nature’s most remarkable yet misunderstood, undervalued and sometimes maligned creatures.
In existence since the time of dinosaurs, bat species number more than 1,400 worldwide, 40 in North America. They rank the second largest group of mammals on the planet. Except for extreme desert and polar regions, bats dwell in every kind of habitat on earth.
And they possess some amazing attributes. Among them, of course, is flight. Bats are the only mammal that can truly fly. One species, the Mexican Free-tailed Bat, can climb to 10,000 feet.
The Fishing Bat possesses an echolocation system so sophisticated it can detect a minnow’s fin as fine as a human hair. The African Heart-nosed Bat can hear the footsteps of a beetle walking on sand from more than six feet away.
But in many parts of the world, Ontario included, this amazing creature is in decline, with some species facing extirpation or even extinction. In 2020 the International Union for Conservation of Nature identified 77 species of bats as officially endangered.
Bat decline should be a concern for anyone who cares about biodiversity, species preservation, and general ecosystem integrity, says Hanover-based bat specialist, Allan Kempert. And that includes agricultural policymakers and farmers. Because bats, Kempert adds, “are one of the most natural agricultural pest-controls you could ever wish for.”
Kempert, known locally as the “BatGuy,” is passionate about bats. Unlike the Batman of TV, movie and comic book fame, he doesn’t live in a Victorian mansion, employ a butler named Alfred, nor drive a turbine-powered armoured car capable of anti-tank warfare.
Kempert’s batmobile is a Chevy Silverado, equipped only with the basic tools he needs to do his job – ladders, sealant, one-way bat exit chutes, and a respirator to name a few.
When he started his business BatGuy.Org 20 years ago, the main service offered was the humane removal of bats from private homes, commercial buildings, churches, and other human-built structures. Evicted bats are freed in warm weather or sent to Hobbitstee Wildlife Refuge near Nanticoke if they are injured or appear in people’s homes during their winter hibernation period. Sealing entry points for bats and vacuuming up bat guano (poop) is also part of the job.
An evolving appreciation of the ecosystem services provided by bats as well as their potential economic value led Kempert to integrate bat conservation and education into his work. He will talk about things batty to just about anyone who will listen, and sometimes offers presentations during “his own hibernation” December to February.
Kempert especially likes to talk bats with farmers who are open to learning about the potential economic value of bats to their farming operation, and typically recommends the installation of agricultural-standard bat houses to attract bats to their fields.
Bats are essential for maintaining healthy ecosystems. They provide crucial ecological services in most biodiverse regions of the world and are a keystone species in some. They pollinate many species of plants, disperse seeds and distribute natural fertilizer through their nutrient-rich guano.
Eating more than half their body weight in insects each summer night, bats are the primary predators of night-flying insects. And farmers and foresters take note: many of those insects are known to damage crops and forests and can also spread disease to humans or livestock.
Eight species of bats live in Ontario, but only Big Brown and Little Brown bats – the kind that occasionally find their way into our living spaces – overnight in attics, barns and abandoned buildings as summer maternity colony habitats.
Sadly, bats today face a multitude of threats – habitat loss, disease, wind turbines, negative public perception and more.
In the last decade or so a disorder known as White Nose Syndrome (WNS), so called because of the telltale white fuzzy growth on the nose, ears and wing membranes of affected bats, has taken a massive toll.
WNS was first identified in New York State in 2006, and in the winter of 2009-2010 was found in Ontario and Quebec hibernacula – the formal name for the caves, mines and attics where bats like to roost.
Transmitted primarily from bat to bat, WNS is a fungus that thrives in cold, humid environments and disrupts bats’ hibernation cycles, causing them to prematurely burn essential body fat supplies before the spring when they begin foraging again. They die of starvation.
The U.S. Center for Biological Diversity considers WNS to be North America’s worst-ever wildlife disease outbreak. Continentally it has killed more than six million bats since it was first discovered, says the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative.
“Loss of natural habitats, together with [WNS] disease, has had a devastating effect on native bat species across North America, especially Little Brown Bats,” said Dr. Brian Hickey, lead scientist for the St. Lawrence River Institute. With provincial funding, the Institute is currently hosting a two-year project to study and monitor the restoration of the Little Brown Bat population in eastern Ontario.
Wind turbines are another significant cause of bat mortality. According to Bat Conservation International, significant numbers of tree-dwelling bats are being killed by the blades of wind turbines across the continent. Why isn’t conclusively known.
Even COVID-19 has taken a toll on bats. Thought by some to have been the original vector for SARS-CoV-2, bats are being culled across the world, writes Natalia Mesa in Scientific American. Last July, upon hearing the conjecture, inhabitants of the village of Culden, Peru burned a nearby large colony of mouse-eared bats intent on their extermination, Mesa says.
An irrational apprehension of bats by humans, leading to negative attitudes and hostility toward most bat species, also contributes to their decline. For millennia, bats have been feared and loathed as sinister creatures of the night.
But as the Canadian Wildlife Foundation puts is, “Bats aren’t scary – but their extinction is.”
Large-scale industrial agricultural practices including eliminating fence lines and hedge-rows and draining wetlands to enlarge crop fields also has a harmful impact on bats. Studies carried out in rural eastern Ontario have demonstrated that bat activity increased with farmland heterogeneity – when forests, fence lines, hedgerows and wetlands were left intact and where crops are diverse and fields smaller.
Estimating bat losses is difficult. They are mobile, nocturnal and hard to count. But “so many have died in North America,” says Craig Willis, a biologist who runs the Willis Bat Lab at the University of Winnipeg, “that scientists have given up counting.”
Kempert is convinced that bat conservation undertaken by farmers could be a win-win situation for farmers and bats. Robust on-farm populations of bats could save on the cost of pesticides, he says, a belief supported by published studies.
The North American Bat Conservation Association (BATCA) once estimated that a single colony of 150 big brown bats in Indiana consumed nearly 1.3 million pest insects each year, likely contributing to the disruption of population cycles of agricultural pests.
Recent studies by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) estimate that bats eat enough pests to save more than $1 billion per year in crop damage and pesticide costs in the U.S. corn industry alone.
A 2011 study published in Science, focusing on the cotton-dominated agricultural landscape of south-central Texas estimated that the value of pest suppression services provided by bats ranges from about US$12 to US$173/acre (with a most likely scenario of US$74/acre). The study said the data provides a first assessment of how much the disappearance of bats could cost the agricultural industry.
Just the disappearance of bats is costing farmers money. The study published in Science also suggests that the dwindling bat population in North America could lead to agricultural losses estimated at $3.7 billion/year and possibly billions more. FWS says it could also cause an increase in insect pests, resulting in damage to crops and forests, and an increase in pesticide use.
Sadly, Kempert says, within Ontario’s farm community bat conservation gets “very little traction” among farmers, “even among organic growers”.
Among those farmers who do seem to understand the potential economic benefits of having large numbers of bats on night-time insect pest patrol, are orchardists.
Filsinger’s Organic Foods, located near Ayton, makes apple cider vinegar, sweet apple cider, apple sauce and pear sauce. About 10 years ago they engaged Kempert’s services to install two bat houses in their orchards. Co-owner Shaun Becker says he noticed a definite increase in bat numbers in subsequent years.
But in recent years there’s been a drop off, he says. WNS disease is suspected. To compensate for the loss of insect pest control – being organic Filsinger’s uses no pesticides - 60 bird houses were installed to attract insect-eating birds including tree swallows.
“There’s no way of quantifying it,” Becker said of the impact bats actually have on insect reduction, “but we could definitely tell, when they came out at dusk, how many (bats) there were and how active they were.”
“I would love for the bat population to come back,” he added.
At Smith’s Apples and Farm Market located near Port Elgin, several bat houses were on the property when it was purchased in 2016. They have a “nice bat population,” said Katie Smith, but she was reluctant to comment on the bats’ impact saying it would only be a gut feeling.
But “We know that having natural predators in our orchard is an important part of sustainable farming,” she added.
So, what’s the long-term outlook for bats? “I alternate between hope and despair,” Willis said. “We’re in the midst of this period of (the Anthropocene) human-caused decline of thousands of species. We’re losing songbirds. We’re losing amphibians. We’re losing insects. We’re losing bats. We’ve got to hold the line wherever we can,” he added.
Like Kempert, Smith advocates installing bat boxes as a simple and effective frontline conservation intervention to help restore Ontario’s bat population. “Bat boxes are great,” she says. “People tend to get discouraged if the bats don’t appear within a year, but doing your research into where the best spots are and the size of the chambers can make a difference.”
“If I had farmland, I would be erecting a bat house every year…in different locations, until I started to see a significant colony – 300 to 400 bats on say 20 acres,” Kempert says.
Calculating the economic impact of bats on agricultural systems is challenging to say the least, because establishing a link between the number of insects consumed by bats and how that translates into savings or costs for farmers is itself a challenge.
But published impact studies and the on-the-ground experience of bat enthusiasts like Kempert, seem to leave little doubt that the effect is substantial.
It’s simple math. Bats are ravenous insect eaters. Large numbers of bats add up to continuous massive daily night-time feasts during warm weather months. Surely common sense suggests, then, that bats are indeed a farmer’s best friend.
Allan Kempert (BatGuy.Org) takes orders for agricultural-standard bat houses, and instructions for DIY two-or-four chambered (recom-mended) bat houses can be found at BatCon.Org. Farmers or property owners wanting to install bat houses can apply for cost-share funding from The Species at Risk Farm Incentive Program (SARFIP) hosted by the government-funded Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association. ◊