Of all wildlife a gardener encounters, perhaps none are as misunderstood as the bat. These gentle little creatures busy themselves pollinating plants, propagating fruit seeds and keeping insect infestations in check, but do they get so much as a thank you for their efforts? A glad to see you? A hey there little fellow, welcome to my garden? Nope. Instead they are screamed at, run from and even clobbered to death with assorted garden tools.
While most people are aware bats eat an enormous amount of insects –including mosquitoes–many also believe bats are blind, rabid and go nose diving into human hair for kicks. Not so. Bats have excellent eyesight and there has never been a single reported case of a bat getting tangled in a person’s hair—a gardener’s or otherwise. As for rabies less than half of one percent of bats carries the disease so your chances of coming across a rabid bat—much less being bitten by one—are next to nil.
Much of the way we view bats comes from Hollywood horror films and the fact bats are nocturnal. One might reason no matter how good a bat’s eyesight might be it doesn’t do them a fat lot of good when they’re programmed to fly around in the dark. However, bats are equipped with the remarkable ability to emit sound waves that bounce off objects and ricochet back, transmitting precise information about everything around them from bugs to brick walls to, well, gardeners.
The “blind as a bat” myth is further perpetrated by people who report being ‘buzzed’ by bats. These infrequent flybys occur when the bat is attracted to the mosquitoes that are in turn attracted by the warmth radiating from your skin. And since bats do not carry the West Nile virus they serve as an organic end to the disease. So being buzzed by a bat is actually like having your own personal bodyguard against mosquitoes and disease.
As rare as these close encounters are, they could become even rarer; nonexistent even. And that’s a bad thing. WNS (white-nose syndrome) is decimating entire colonies of hibernating bats. First discovered in a cave in New York in 2007 WNS has since been finding its way across eastern North America including (at last count) five Canadian provinces; Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. The disease presents itself as a white fungus that irritates the bats rousing them from hibernation causing them to use up precious stores of fat.
The ripple effect is only starting to be understood. While WNS does not seem to affect human health, monetary estimates to Canadian farmers run into the billions of dollars. Without bats keeping harmful pests in check our growers will resort to pouring expensive pesticides on their crops which in turn translate to more pesticides in our food and higher prices at the checkout.
Out of more than 1200 species of bats only 20 reside in Canada. Our two most common species are the little brown bat and the big brown bat; the little brown bat can be found in every single province and territory. Both are among the bats threatened by WNS. BC has the biggest variety with 16 types of bats calling the province home. Despite the fact WNS has yet to hit BC eight of the 16 species are already considered “at risk” due to human activities.
So what’s a gardener to do? Here are just a few suggestions
• Set up bat houses on your property to give bats a summer habitat
• Spread the word! Reverse all the negative PR by letting neighbours, friends and family know about the benefits of bats and the importance of protecting them.
• If you come across a bat for heaven sakes, don’t give in to fear and start clobbering the poor thing over the head. Not only is this wrong, many species are protected which means killing them is also illegal. As with all wildlife, the best thing to do is simply leave the bat alone and it will soon be on its way. If you believe the bat is sick—and not simply sleeping—do not attempt to remove it yourself or allow pets or children near it. Contact appropriate authorities who can remove the bat for you. If the bat appears healthy but has somehow found its way inside your house or shed, then leather gloves, a coffee can and a thick piece of cardboard can be effective bat relocation tools. After that it’s just like trapping a bee inside a cup…only different. Because it’s a bat.
• If you know someone who enjoys caving–or if you are such a person yourself—encourage responsibility. If bats winter in the caves check the caves out during the summer months when the bats are gone. Disrupting hibernating bats has the same effect as WNS; it causes them to fly around and use up precious stores of fat. Either disinfect or better yet, wear different shoes if you’re going into different caves. It is believed that WNS first made its way to Howes Cavern in New York on the shoe of someone who had been exploring an infected cave in Europe.
• Guano is a rich source of fertilizer that has been coveted by organic gardeners for centuries. Not only does it feed your plants it also detoxifies the soil. If you use bat guano in your garden inquire about the collecting practices of your supplier. Guano should be gathered during the summer months when bats have vacated the cave so they are not being disturbed during hibernation. Ask what practices are in place to prevent the spread of disease from one cave to another and if harvesting is being done with sustainability in mind. A single tablespoon of guano teems with hundreds of species of valuable bacteria that make up a vital part of a healthy cave ecosystem.
Build or Buy a Better Bat House
You can help boost bat populations and provide yourself with a local source of free guano by installing summer bat houses. Here are some key points to keep in mind before building or buying a bat house.
Go Big- build or buy houses that are at least 60 cm (two feet) tall and 36 cm (14 inches) wide since bats seem more attracted to larger digs. Those cute little bat houses you see for sale in little shops are usually too small, cheaply made and useless.
Go More- if possible, group two or three houses together at slightly different elevations and directions. Bats thrive when they are able to move around from house to house as air fluctuations and temperatures dictate.
Go High and Go Sunny –the biggest cause of failure to attract bats in Canada is lack of warmth. Preferably face houses to the south at a minimum height of 3 metres (10 feet) where they will be safe from predators and get a minimum of 6 – 8 hours of direct sun per day. Bats seem to prefer bat houses affixed to brick or stone buildings or to poles rather than trees or metal siding. Make sure the entrances have a clearance of at least 6 metres (20 feet) from obstacles such as tree branches, power lines or other buildings. Avoid placing them near glaring artificial lights.
In Canada bat houses should be covered in black tar paper or painted black for ultimate heat absorption. Use a water based stain (not oil based). Never paint the inside of the box as the paint will fill in the cracks making the wood smooth. Bats need a rough surface to cling to.
Go Near Water-you will attract more bats if the house is situated no more than 400 metres (less than a quarter mile) from a water source. Now you have an ecologically sound reason to put in that pond you always wanted!
Don’t Give Up!-allow at least two seasons for bats to discover their new summer home. If they still haven’t arrived by the third year try moving the house or houses to a new location. And when bats do arrive let Bat Conservation International know!
Buy a Better Bat House-
Canadian Bat Houses Images
Canadian Bat Houses carry houses that have been inspected and approved by Bat Conservation International. These would be the best bet for Peace Country gardens. They are expensive but worth the investment. Free shipping in North America.
Thunder Bay, Ontario
Lee Valley carries an affordable bat house developed by the Organization for Bat Conservation. Available in retail stores only; sorry no mail order. Here in the Peace that means waiting for a trip to Edmonton to pick one up. Other locations include Calgary, Kelowna, Coquitlam, Vancouver and Victoria.
Build a Better Bat House!
Bat Conservation International has great plans for building your own bat house as well as everything you ever wanted to know about these misunderstood creatures.
This Bat House Builder’s Handbook is a wealth of information for building your own bat houses.