Copley Twp.: Unlike many people, Seth Emerson never thought bats were creepy or frightening. But he didn’t think they were all that useful, either.
Truth be told, he didn’t think much about them at all. “I was kind of indifferent,” he said.
Emerson is now a champion of the insect-gobbling creatures. With the help of some friends and relatives, he built two bat houses and installed them last week on the grounds of the Hospice of Visiting Nurse Service Justin T. Rogers Care Center. It’s his hope that bats will congregate in the houses and keep the pesky mosquito population in check.
Emerson, a senior at Copley High School, took on the project in pursuit of his Eagle Scout rank and came away with a new respect for the nocturnal flying mammals. “They’re definitely not harmful,” he said.
Bats, in fact, have gotten a bad rap. Despite their associations with Halloween and horror movies, they’re actually rather gentle creatures that eat bugs, not blood — in our part of the world, anyway.
(Yes, vampire bats do exist, and yes, they do feed on blood. But they live in tropical areas south of the United States, and they represent only three of more than 1,200 bat species.)
The bats that inhabit the Midwest are all insect eaters, and voracious ones, at that. A single bat can eat 2,000 to 5,000 insects every night, said Rob Mies, executive director of the Organization for Bat Conservation, an educational organization in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
Many of the night-flying insects that bats eat are considered pests to people or crops, he said — insects such as the spotted cucumber beetle, the emerald ash borer and the moth that produces tomato hornworm caterpillars. And, of course, mosquitoes.
That’s why bats are extremely important as a natural source of pest control, Mies said.
And that’s why the hospice center wanted to make its grounds more hospitable to bats, and why it teamed up with Emerson on the bat house project, said Diane Hovatter, the center’s groundskeeper and horticulturist. Last year, Hovatter said, the young participants in the center’s Camp Promise couldn’t even stay outdoors because of what she called the “absolutely horrific” mosquitoes.
Unfortunately, bat populations are struggling in our area, partly because their natural habitat is declining but also because they’re susceptible to a disease called white nose syndrome. The disease, caused by a fungus that grows in caves where bats hibernate in winter, has already killed more than 5.7 million bats in Eastern North America and is spreading fast, according to Mies’ organization.
While bat houses can’t solve the problem of white nose syndrome, they can help stabilize the bat population by giving bats a safe place to live and raise their young when they’re not hibernating, Mies said. The houses can also keep bats from seeking shelter in our homes, where they quickly turn from helpers to handicaps.
Bats typically live in little spaces such as rock crevices, the spaces behind loose tree bark and the cavities in dead or dying trees. When those places disappear because of either natural forces or development, bats need to find new digs. Better the bats take up residence in a bat house than in your attic or behind your window shutters, Mies said.
Bat houses are particularly beneficial for female bats, which cluster in large colonies to give birth and raise their young. Males live alone or in smaller groups called bachelor colonies. They may use a bat house, but they won’t congregate there in large numbers the way the females will.
Proper bat houses are specially designed to protect bats from predators, maintain an appropriate temperature range and provide the right type of space for them to roost.
In our area of the country, houses need to be stained or painted dark colors to absorb heat and situated where they’ll get plenty of sun, but they should also be ventilated to prevent overheating. The houses are mounted on poles or buildings high off the ground and far from trees, wires or other places where predatory birds could perch.
Installing a bat house comes with the responsibility of maintaining it, the organization Bat Conservation International points out in its literature. That involves cleaning out wasp or mud dauber nests each winter, caulking and either painting or staining every few years, and monitoring the house at least monthly for problems such as predators or overheating.
Emerson’s bat houses, along with two others that were supplied by the hospice center, are mounted on wood posts sunk in concrete on the far side of a lake that borders the center’s gardens. A fence blocks access so people strolling the grounds won’t disturb any bats that may roost or nest there, Hovatter said.
She was checking the houses this week in hopes of finding new residents, but experts caution it can take as long as five years for bat houses to attract occupants.
But to her, having bats in residence will be worth the wait.
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or email@example.com. You can also become a fan on Facebook at http://tinyurl.com/mbbreck, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckABJ and read her blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/mary-beth.