It started with my sister-in-law’s request to build her a bat house. I was online looking for bat house plans when I came across an interesting website for an organization based in Texas called Bat Conservation International (BCI). There focus is no secret, but a “stroll” through their amazing website gave me the idea that just maybe a column on bats with some educational information about bats here in Kansas would be of interest to readers; after all, I do like the unusual.
It’s hard for me to think that here in mid-western farm country we would need a lesson in “bat conservation” as I think the only time we would frown on a bat’s presence was if it showed up loose in our living room. Mylea Bayless, Director of Partnership and Networking for BCI gave me a crash course on bats and taught me a little about their value and impact on agriculture nationwide.
Bats are mammals and are the only mammals in the U.S. capable of true flight. Of more than 1300 species of bats in America, 15 species have been recorded here in Kansas. Interestingly enough, 32% of the nation’s bats reside in Wyoming. Everything’s big in Texas, so it only seems fitting that the WORLD’S largest single bat colony should be found there too. From March through October of each year, a cave known as Bracken Cave north of San Antonio is home to a colony of Mexican Free Tailed bats estimated to be 20 million strong, also making it the WORLD’S largest single known concentration of mammals.
According to Dr. Elmer Finck, professor of biology at Fort Hays State, the most common bat in our state is the Big Brown Bat. Big Brown Bats are insect eaters and inhabit KS year round, hibernating in bat houses or in old building during cold months. All bats found in Kansas are insectivores, meaning they feed on insects only, but other bats elsewhere in the world also eat fruit or nectar. Bats are not blind as was once thought, but in fact see quite well, however insectivores use a type of echolocation to locate insects at night.
Although Dr. Finck knows of no studies regarding bats value to agriculture in Kansas, bats are credited with being very valuable to agriculture nationwide. Dollar amounts vary widely depending upon the study, but bats are thought to save corn farmers billions of dollars by feeding on the corn earworm moth. These moths attack many different crops, laying eggs that hatch into destructive worms, and are also called tomato fruit worms and cotton bollworms depending on the part of the country and the crop they are targeting. Although some larva are able to survive mild winters in some states, great swarms of the moths emerge from the gulf coast and the Rio Grande valley each spring heading north, and high flying Mexican Free Tailed bats like the huge colony from Bracken Cave, intercept those swarms, devouring millions of them in-flight. Bats are also thought to pollinate more than 500 species of plants, and are known to be the main pollinators of the agave plants in Mexico from which tequila is made.
Again, though studies are sparse about bats insect consumption here in Kansas, it’s widely accepted that they, along with birds like swallows, swifts and purple martins, devour hoards of mosquitoes and other pesky bugs. Existing structures like old barns and bridges offer ample housing for swallows, and old brick chimneys protect swifts and those same structures out in the country beckon bats as well. But in town we build martin houses by the dozens to attract those hungry bug gulpers to our neighborhoods, so why not place a bat house or two in your neighborhood too to attract even more help. Bat houses are wide, flat structures with narrow compartments in which bats can take up residence when they are not out hunting. Put them on a pole by themselves or on the side of a tall building, preferably not on or near a tree to make it tougher for predators like hawks and owls to lay in wait to ambush the bats as they come and go. Also put them at least 15 feet off the ground to give bats plenty of space to swoop down and get the necessary lift they need to fly. You can find a dandy bat house plan on BCI’s website. www.batcon.org. You can also buy electronic devices to turn your I-phone or android device into an electronic bat locator, actually allowing your device to locate and follow bats using their echolocation signals. In 2014, bat conservation groups and the National Forest Service set aside the last week of October to celebrate Bat Conservation Week, and no, it’s not a coincidence that it culminates each year with Halloween. This year’s dates are October 24 – October 31, 2017. Go to their website www.batweek.org and check out all the activities they offer for kids and adults alike.
Ok, so the only bats that crave blood are buried in the jungles of central and south America, and don’t target humans anyway. Bats won’t tangle themselves in your hair, and having “bats in your belfry” really has nothing to do with bats at all. And as for the warnings that bats carry rabies, every study I read put the percentage of rabid bats at less than 1%; in other words, you’re much more likely to be struck by lightning. Bats seem a little creepy only because of myths and legends, and really are very good and valuable to our society. Check out bat house plans on the 2 websites listed above and put up a couple to draw a few more bug guzzlers to your neighborhood; yet another “batty” way to Explore Kansas Outdoors!
Steve can be contacted by email at [email protected]