BATS IN YOUR FARM STRUCTURES ARE A BIG BONUS. In order to fully appreciate the marvel of the world's most wondrous insect terminator–the bat–a review is in order of that familiar sboteur of a warm summer evening: the mosquito.
If the female mosquito was disinclined to reproduce, we would hardly take notice of her. She would duplicate the male’s behavior and feed off nectar and other plant sugars instead of annoying us with those dastardly bites. Even with repellents, our horses are many times agitated to the point of exhaustion trying to protect tender areas from the onslaught. The female mosquito’s script is blunt: she requires both blood and water to complete her reproductive cycle, and both are in abundant supply on the farm.
The life-cycle of the mosquito demands a blood meal for the development of her eggs, as well as a calm body of water to deposit them. Most of us offer a smorgasbord of protein-rich plasma that is hardly limited to horses and humans; cattle, dogs and fowl are additional fast-food reservoirs. With stock tanks brimming and melting snow or rainwater accumulating in puddles and ditches, her nursery is complete, and the opportunistic mosquito can thwart your best efforts to eradicate her exponential broods. Larvae often thrive in out-of-sight locations such as gutters or forgotten buckets. Drain fields and irrigation systems also provide an advantageous channel for a population explosion of mankind’s most reviled insect. If scratching yourself dog-mad isn’t bad enough, consider the ominous side to this 2.5 milligram vector agent: it’s available in nearly 3,000 varieties and propagates endemic levels of malaria, Dengue fever, sleeping sickness, West Nile Virus, and heartworm.
Illogically, bats—ranging from the size of a bumble bee to those with wing spans of six feet—are regarded as ghoulish amulets of the night. Most people shudder at the thought of encountering earth’s only flying mammal regardless of his unequivocal reign as supreme adversary of bothersome bugs. Only a few years ago, bats were often destroyed on sight when located in barns, garages, attics, and porches since they were viewed as nothing more than a frightening disease proliferator. Additionally, many people look at bats as downright creepy. But the fact is we are behind the curve in lauding them well-earned esteem. These fascinating sentinels of the deep night are working for our benefit in ways that are nothing short of spectacular, yet his beguiling existence remains secret to most.
With the annual financial impact of vector agents soaring into the hundreds of millions of dollars, our investment in equine vaccines targeting the prevention of diseases spread by mosquitoes happens to be the very charge that illuminates the impressive counter impact of the bat, and that has some draft horse owners standing up and taking notice. As farms continue to employ the effective application of biological fly control such as parasitic wasps that feed upon manure-breeding flies, the expansion of pest control programs that recruit bats does not, understandably, catch us by surprise.
Alas for the bat, many people harbor a primal repugnance for this animal that is rooted in misunderstanding, much of it effected by myths that have circulated since the time of Cro-Magnon. First of all, bats are not blind. They are not flying mice, nor are they part of the rodent family. Their eyesight is very acute and their intelligence rivals that of primates. In fact, bats are so unique that they are classified in their own order of mammals known as Chiroptera. And of the three species of vampire bats that shoulder a lopsided brunt for bat-panic, take heed: they reside in Latin America and none are larger than 50 grams. Furthermore, hemotophagous bats do not attack humans, preferring instead to dine on a 5 milliliter meal of blood from a resting animal.
Wisconsin bat advocate, Nan Osterhoudt, along with her husband Chris, fell in love with draft horses several years ago and promptly set out to find a farm to pursue their interest and to establish Axeholme Shires. They settled on a retired dairy in Colfax that came complete with an abundance of buildings, picturesque views, lush pastures fed by a stream, and a pond. “When that stream gets low in the warm months, we’re inundated with gnats and mosquitoes,” she says. After a thrilling hike in a Cairns, Australia orchard a few years ago where an enormous colony of fruit bats engulfed a delighted Nan in a fly-by, she was anything but frightened when she discovered small colonies of brown bats tucked away in safe corners of her Wisconsin barn. “I could hear them squeaking, and I was really pleased to have them here. Anything that eats twice their weight in insects at night—who would ever complain about that?”
What the Osterhoudts and other draft horse owners recognize is the extraordinary track record of insectivorous bats: they consume billions of tons of insects every summer. Bats such as the Eastern Pipistrelle, the Brown Bat, the Mexican Free-tail and others can consume up to 600 insects per hour with estimates of about 3000 insects per night. Add to that the worldwide contributions of Fruit bats that are responsible for over 95% of rain forest regeneration due to pollination and seed dispersal, and any remaining aversion to the bat is a stance gravely flawed.
“We love having bats here,” Nan says. “They more than pay their rent, and I truly enjoy their subtle presence when I’m out at night and they’re hunting right above me. When I discovered their occupancy in the barn, I was determined to make them feel welcome by protecting those areas from any disturbance and by putting up bat houses. Hanging a bat house takes only a few minutes—it took me longer to locate and stand my ladder. Super easy project and I plan to put up a lot more.”
If Osterhoudt is fortunate enough to establish a large maternal colony on her property, she has much to profit. Pups nurse from the mother’s two pectoral breasts until they are old enough to accompany their mother, but as long as they are nursing, the mother bat must eat about 70% of her body weight in insects each night. Studies of Mexican Free-tail bats in parts of Texas suggest that one million bats consume about ten tons of insects per night, and of the total population of Free-tails which numbers about 100 million, as much as two hundred million pounds—or 1,000 tons—of insects are eaten during a night of hunting.
Like other draft owners who welcome bats on their property, Osterhoudt’s perspective is born of an understanding of fact as well as an aim to dispel the harmful myths responsible for discouraging others from supporting bat activity. The most significant deterrent is the fear of rabies, but less than 1% of bats have the virus, and according to the Centers for Disease Control, the U.S. cat population has a slightly higher incidence of reported rabies at 1%. Bats do not "carry" rabies, they develop the disease like any other mammal once infected. In respect to private horse operations, a major legitimacy to deliberate is that an increased awareness of bats is not an increase in exposure; all of us have been in the presence of bats at some time, but healthy bats usually go unnoticed because their presence is unremarkable. A sickly bat is a conspicuous bat, one that signals immediate cause for concern. With any wild animal, the first sign of illness is unusual behavior.
Though statistics have shifted over the years and sometimes vary by state, 90% of all reported rabies cases are from wild animals that include the raccoon, skunk, bat, coyote, and fox. The declining incidence in domestic rabies is attributed to the last decade’s aggressive vaccination programs for cats and dogs, and even horses. The Centers for Disease Control report that due to these efforts, the U.S. has successfully eliminated a specific strain of canine rabies that once spread from dog-to-dog. Unlike domestic animals, as well as other species of wild animals, bats are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to eradicating rabies because of their existence in such large, close-contact colonies.
“You are more likely to be struck by lightning than contract rabies by a bat,” Northeast Shires’ Janet Long says. “Regardless of the density of a bat population on your farm, the opportunity for actually coming into physical contact with a bat is very slim, and you cannot get rabies from being close to one. They have to bite you. Healthy bats demonstrate normal behavior in avoiding direct contact with humans, and I have personally never had a sick bat on my farm. We love having them here, and with the pond at the lower end of my pastures, they do a marvelous job of controlling the mosquitoes.”
Woodstock, Georgia’s Charley and Sherry Lee agree. “Bats are an excellent insectivore and are always welcome here at Thumblatch Farm. They’ve been patrolling our place for years and never bother us or the horses. Anything that eats bugs is welcome to stay as long as they like, and anything that encourages their tenancy is equally well-received.” Hung high on the exterior of the barn that houses the Lee’s Percherons and Morgans is a weather-worn bat house that, in spite of its white paint, remains relatively inconspicuous.
Draft owners Lee and Long understand the prudent verification of statistics that quickly puts the threat of bat-attributable rabies into perspective. Hymenoptera stings account for more deaths in the United States than any other envenomation. These are bees, wasps, yellow jackets, and hornets. They are the uncontested leader of U.S. human deaths caused by an animal and account for about 54 deaths per year. Dog attacks account for roughly 32 human deaths per year. Bats are low on the list, accounting for approximately one human rabies death per year. In all likelihood, this is only because their bites are so tiny that they either go unnoticed or are mistaken for a thorn prick or insect bite. Immediate medical attention and post exposure prophylaxis treatment eliminates the threat of rabies death due to a bat bite, but must be administered prior to the onset of symptoms. The responsible posture is to never handle any wild animal including bats, but sometimes we face situations of having to collect and remove bats from an attic or similar enclosure. Janet Long has occasionally discovered bats that fell into stall water buckets. “I’ve had to rescue bats and I’m happy to do so, but using a glove ensures no contact,” she says.
Recently, and close on the heels of the alarming incidence of bee colony collapse, a destructive nemesis to the bat has arisen in the form of White Nose Syndrome (WNS). Because of it, there is wide-ranging concern for the vitality of bat colonies in North America due to WNS, a deadly strain of fungus that is responsible for wiping out entire colonies of this keystone species.
“Dedicated cavers and canyoneers are regular visitors to popular Colorado caves near my farm,” says Shire breeder Kim Murchison. “Restrictions have eased somewhat, but a lot of hot spots for explorers are on lockdown and may be for some time in an effort to immobilize the spread of WNS.” As a 7th grade science teacher, Murchison is hardly inconsiderate of the night-time winged militia that patrols her irrigated summer pastures. Additionally, what Murchison, Long, and Osterhoudt acknowledge is that bats are some of the slowest mammals to reproduce, often giving birth to only one pup per year. With the bat’s delicate reproductive traits shadowed by the deleterious threat of WNS, these draft horse owners are part of an expanding segment of farm owners dedicated to reinforcing bat colony vitality.
So how do these bat detachments work so effectively in harvesting insects in the dark? My quest to unearth their secrets began years ago on my Washington farm that was seeded in wonder at these shy animals that, delightfully, seemed as curious about me as I was about them. Sometimes they would follow me into the shop, refusing to leave until I did. Down by the barn, they darted and fluttered at the vapor light, their wings pumping against the quiet of night as they plucked bugs from the air. At times they maneuvered over the horses and other times I could hear the soft and very-close brush of their wing-beats as they assaulted mosquitoes close to my head. They quickly disproved those old, menacing tales asserting that bats deliberately attempt to entangle themselves in someone’s hair; they were actively feeding off the mosquitoes that are drawn to chemical signatures exhaled in the CO2 from myself, and from my horses.
If we are curious about the bat’s intriguing performance in a dimly lit setting, then we are nothing less than fascinated by his adept capacity for locating insects in absolute darkness. Like many others, I wonder how it is that in complete darkness the bat is still able to distinguish between a wall or a horse, a dog or a piece of equipment, a human or an insect. It’s understandable that one becomes anxious about the prospect of an accidental collision with a bat if he is confined in a dark building with you, but the reason you need not worry transcends all exceptional ability. It’s an unparalleled navigation system called echolocation. When bats take flight, they emit intense and very high-frequency sounds. They then listen to the echoes of these sounds that bounce back to them from their surroundings which include other animals, objects, insects and certainly each other.
Scaling down echolocation’s technical vernacular for purposes of enlightenment, we’ll examine the childhood sport of bouncing our voices over ravines, across a valley, into a distant rock face, or even the walls of a sealed, vacant structure. There is little complexity to the sport of challenging a willing surface to a game of echo. Air passes over the vibration of your vocal chords and produces oscillations that form sound waves. The sound waves are air patterns in motion that push adjoining air particles out, and then draw them back again. Adjoining particles are caught up in the push and pull energy which produces sound. Variables such as vocal chord intensity and fluctuation, as well as air pressure changes affect the pitch and tone of sound, but where atmospheric pressure and composition are stable, any surface that deflects your sound waves will do so at a consistent speed. With a few data calculations and precise timing, you could easily measure the distance between your person and the surface that bounces your sound wave back to you—exactly what the bat does. But make no mistake. The bat is so skilled and so precise with echolocation that his recognition is on a subconscious level of spatial perception, one that defies even the extraordinary. Since a bat can easily detect a single hair on your head, the notion of him entangling himself in your hair is blatantly absurd.
My budding pursuit of technical bat information eventually landed me on the cyber-doorstep of one of the world’s leading experts, Amanda Lollar, Founder and President of Bat World Sanctuary in Mineral Wells, Texas. My association with Amanda has blossomed into a bond of sheer enchantment. She is to bats what Jane Goodall was to chimpanzees, and is gracious and generous with her time and her decades of hard-earned knowledge about the bats she has dedicated her life to protecting. Our interaction has not only enriched my bat-knowledge library, it spurred me into action along with other draft horse owners to welcome these wonderful animals into our barns.
Lollar’s chief, present-day concern is White Nose Syndrome for which there is no cure, and her crusade has become even more urgent with the million-plus numbers of bats that have succumbed to the disease that scientists aren’t even close to developing a cure for. Lollar’s Bat World Sanctuary is currently the only non-profit organization actively seeking to save bats in danger of extinction from White Nose Syndrome by creating assurance colonies. She has the uncontested expertise to care for them for long periods of time in captivity, but is working hard to generate funding to build a facility large enough to house several affected species to keep them safe until a cure is found. “Where so many people are either unaware or choose to look away, I stay on the front line to end the destruction of bats.”
Lollar pauses the conversation momentarily to tend a row of tiny orphan bat pups snuggled in a blanket. She uses a dropper to saturate miniscule bits of sponge with milk. Their eyes yet unopened, the wee pups suck milk from their sponges as Amanda continues with a smile. “It’s round-the-clock during orphan season,” she tells me. “Bat World Sanctuary is recognized as the world’s leader in bat care standards and cutting-edge rehabilitation treatments, and we have even created specific guidelines for excellence in worldwide bat education programs.”
Amanda Lollar and Bat World Sanctuary are easy to embrace. Her story of dedication to these flying mammals is one of heart-warming amazement, and she is pleased to learn that the results of her hard work through education are seeping into the draft horse world. “Every little bit helps. These animals are a tremendous benefit to all horse and livestock owners, and giving them a leg up requires so little. Each year, we rescue thousands of bats that might otherwise die. Lifetime sanctuary is given to non-releasable bats including orphans, injured bats, those confiscated from the illegal pet trade, and to bats retired from zoos and research facilities.”
A growing number of draft horse owners are on board with Amanda’s labors. “I’m teaching my son about the benefits of bats on our farm, and as an eager five-year-old, he loves learning about animals,” says Kim Murchison of her son, Alex. “We’re picking out choice spots on the farm with the right height and sun exposure to place bat houses in hopes of encouraging more activity. Bat World is a wonderful resource with educational materials as well as bat houses that not only help fund research and boost bat activity here at Tally Ho Shires, but they deliver right to the farm.”
As the end of this article rises to greet me, I must first confess that I had scarcely developed my association with Amanda Lollar when I found myself eagerly adopting three of the sanctuary's bats, including the precocious Bootsanna and darling Peek-A-Boo. The bats remain at the facility, of course, but I have so enjoyed this sponsorship that I will likely adopt additional bats not only for my own personal satisfaction, but to help fund the costs of rescue, medicine, melon and banana that the bats dearly love, and of course, an endless supply of mealworms for the bats’ dining pleasure.
In the meantime, I have already satisfied this year’s Christmas shopping list: bat houses—perfect for anyone, especially those with barns, shops, or outbuildings. The purchase of any Bat World Sanctuary bat house—ranging from a kit, to a Triple Chamber design, to a Lone Star Super-Condo—will support the matchless efforts of Bat World Sanctuary and will invite more bats to your property. That’s a good thing.
In the end, I muse the possibilities of why so many draft horse owners are eager to encourage the benefits of bat activity—including the obvious that we’re all a little batty anyway—and so it is that I unleash my droll conclusion, the one that names my third adopted bat ... Why Cleobatra, of course.