The Bats and the Bees

“We know the losses of bats in the West will be less conspicuous than in the Northeast, where thousands of dead bats are spilling out of cold, dark caves and across the countryside.”

Bees seem to get all the good publicity. In the past few decades, we’ve gone from fear of marauding hordes of killer bees to concern about the decreasing populations of the cute and fuzzy pollinators. But what about bats? These nocturnal creatures, who like to spend their days hanging upside down in dark caves, are creepy and scary. (Except, of course, a certain crime-fighting comic superhero.)

Bats have a good side, though. In their nighttime wanderings, they feast on mosquitos, including mosquitos carrying West Nile virus. They consume pests and insects to the benefit of cotton and corn crops. Recent studies estimate bats provide pest-control worth nearly $4 billion in the U.S. More importantly — to some — they pollinate the agave plant, the ingredient necessary for tequila. They do the same for Arizona’s official state cactus, the saguaro. In Austin Texas, they entertain locals and tourists with their evening emergence from under the Congress Street bridge. They provide similar entertainment in other cities.

Bats’ ravenous appetite for bugs, encourages many homeowners to make their properties attractive roosting places for bats. And there is no documented proof that a bat caught in your hair has dire, even fatal, consequences.

But now bats are threatened by the spread of white-nose fungus.

White-Nose Syndrome, so-called because the white fungus appears on the muzzle and wings, eats away at the skin. The fungus originated in Europe, where bats over time developed immunity to it. (Europeans have been bringing new diseases to North America since the time of Columbus’s visits.) It first appeared in Albany New York, taking out as much as ninety-percent of the population in some caves, and has since quickly spread west. The first case in the state of Washington was discovered in 2016 and in 2019 was found in California.

The white-nose disease attacks bats during their hibernation period, when their metabolic rate and body temperature is lower. The fungus thrives at cool temperatures, as in the caves where the bats rest. Scientists hope that California’s warmer temperatures and smaller bat colonies will slow the spread of the malady, giving them time to develop countermeasures or even a vaccine. (In California, the flying mammals tend to congregate in smaller groups, under freeway overpasses or palm-tree fronds instead of caves.) Fungicides have not been used, because the effect on caves or other bat environments is not known. Unintended consequences from use of chemicals is almost a cliché.

In the meantime, better watch out for mosquitoes.

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