Pest Control & Tequila… What’s Not to Love about BATS!

by Brian Pope

Insects love Florida. In fact, mosquitoes love Florida so much that eighty species have decided to become our permanent neighbors – this is more than any other state! Of those, thirteen are capable of transmitting pathogens that cause diseases in animals and humans, including heartworm and West Nile virus.

Luckily, we have a line of defense that few of us see, and even less can “hear” – our native bats.

Nine species live in Alachua County, including the beautiful Eastern red bat (Lasiurus borealis) and the Mexican free-tailed bat (Tadarida brasiliensis). The latter can be found in massive numbers at the UF bat houses, where hundreds of thousands live within the structures. As Director of Lubee Bat Conservancy, I have a unique opportunity to work with bats from all over the world. Our center houses 200 bats, representing ten species, including the Malayan flying fox which can attain a 6 foot wingspan! We are also actively involved in field work, acoustic surveys, bat house construction/installation, and exclusion work. One interesting aspect of my job is that I get to “listen” to the bats whenever we deploy our acoustic monitors, generously provided by Normandeau Associates, Inc. The devices record bat echolocation calls via a sensitive microphone. This information is recorded onto a mobile computer and the data is uploaded to a server. The calls are then cleaned up and available for analysis, sometimes thousands for each night of recording. It’s my job to look at each call’s frequency and shape to determine which species are in the area. It’s amazing to listen to a world that we don’t even know is around us.

In the twenty-one years of my career, I have worked with many animal species, but always with a focus on bats. Bats are the only flying mammals and there’s still much to be discovered about their physiology, social structures, and overall natural history. Working with bats provides a fantastic opportunity to educate people on the importance of these often maligned, yet gentle animals.

A 2011 USGS study showed that bats save U.S. farmers between 3.7 to 53 billion dollars annually on pesticides and crop losses. Past studies have shown that bats eat a variety of agricultural pests, including stink bugs and corn earworm moths, the larvae of which are the most destructive crop pest in the U.S.

Bracken Cave outside Austin, TX is the summer home for 15 million Mexican free-tailed bats, the world’s largest bat colony and one of the largest concentrations of mammals on earth. These bats provide estimated services of 2 to 3 million dollars per year as pest control for corn and cotton production. Fruit and nectar bats are vitally important for seed dispersal and pollination. Fond of margaritas during the hot, humid Florida summers? Thank a bat! Bats are one of the only pollinators of the agave plant from which tequila is produced. Fruit bats contribute billions to the global agricultural economy by acting as the primary pollinators for mangos, figs, bananas, cashews, and many other crops. They are also one of the only pollinators of the iconic Baobab trees found in Africa and Madagascar. Studies in Central America and Asia have shown that bats are responsible for 90% of rainforest regeneration after logging by spreading seeds into these areas. In addition to their pest control and agricultural services, we may one day thank bats for helping find the cure for some of the world’s deadliest diseases.

Fruit bats have incredible immune systems that protect them from a range of diseases such as Ebola virus in Africa, Nipah in Southeast Asia, and Hendra in Australia. These diseases are fatal to other mammals such as humans, apes, and horses. However, bats seem to have an immunity. If an individual acquires one of these pathogens, their immune systems attack and create antibodies which enables the virus to be quickly dealt with and eradicated. The exact mechanism has yet to be found, however, that’s where Lubee comes in. Along with being a certified member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, we are also licensed by the USDA as an exhibition and research facility.

Bats are one of the only pollinators of the agave plant from which tequila is produced.

We are the only institution in the U.S. capable of providing blood samples to other researchers, and regularly work with NIH, US Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases, CDC, and numerous universities. We do not participate in destructive, invasive, or terminal procedures, and all projects are reviewed and approved by a committee. We simply take a small blood sample and place the bats back with the group.

All bats at Lubee are clean and have been tested for a range of pathogens, as are most bats and primates at zoos and other facilities around the world. Once the blood is sent off, researchers inject it with a variety of viruses (such as Ebola) to see how the immune system reacts.

Bats are fascinating animals and working at Lubee allows us to contribute to conservation, research, and education programs in Gainesville and around the world.

Want to help out; how about putting a bat house in your yard! We are happy to construct/install, and provide information on the appropriate location.

Learn more at our 13th Annual Bat Festival, Saturday, October 21st. This year, we will focus on dispelling myths, discussing native species, bat houses, and of course, showcasing our 200 flying giants! Bats protect our crops, forests, and may be the key to understanding mankind’s greatest health threats. www.lubee.org