As we enter Halloween season, one of the most popular images of this spooky time of year is that of a bat. The creepy tales of vampire bats and Dracula are enduring and certainly exciting. Unfortunately, many negative connotations exist around this fascinating species. Perhaps you’ve heard they carry rabies, that they will fly into your hair, or that many of them are considered blood-sucking vampire bats?
In fact, there are many benefits to having bats in one’s landscape, neighborhood, or farm. The predominant role of bats in our local ecosystems is that of insect predator. A single little brown bat (Myotis lucifugis), which is native to the Florida Panhandle, can eat 1,200 insects (including mosquitoes) in one hour of feeding! In Texas, a recent study put the economic value of bats due to their consumption of agricultural pests on cotton farms at $ 74/acre. Extrapolated values of bats’ pest suppression services to US agriculture is in the billions of dollars annually.
Other species in warmer climates eat fruit and play a major role in reforesting rain forests in Central and South America—after digesting the fruit they leave seeds in their droppings (guano is excellent fertilizer, by the way), helping replant 95% of the very trees they feed upon. Some species feed on nectar, filling the same role as bees and helping pollinate bananas, avocados, cashews, and figs.
Contrary to popular belief, bats are not blind and many have excellent vision. However, they do rely heavily on echolocation to sense prey and are extremely accurate hunters. Viewed close up, many people consider the small, furry animals rather cute, as opposed to frightening. They often fly erratically because they are chasing very small flying insects, so the only reason one would end up in a person’s hair is if a mosquito flew through it with a bat in chase! While vampire bats do exist, there are only 3 out of over 1,000 species of bats that feed on blood, and they all live in Latin America. They also tend to feed on the blood of livestock.
Human contact with bats is rare unless the bats are sick, which is why one found on the ground should be left alone. Rabies transmission from bats accounts for only one death per year in the United States—a statistic much less than that of deaths from dog bites, bee stings, and lighting strikes! In fact, several towns in Texas with the highest populations of bats in the country have recorded zero human bat-transmitted rabies cases.
Bat populations are declining in North America due to disease (particularly white-nose syndrome), loss of habitat, and the slow reproductive cycle of bats. However, you can help the world’s only flying mammal by installing a bat house in your yard. Keep in mind that bats attracted to bat houses prefer to be in open areas away from trees (where their predators hide), and the house should be installed at least 12 feet in the air. Bat houses can be purchased or built rather simply—this UF IFAS Extension publication outlines several types, or visit Bat Conservation International’s website for simple instructions.