Bat flying by the moon Getty Images

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Getting a little 'batty' before Halloween

If things seem a little batty this week perhaps it’s because national bat week is upon us.

Whether it’s the proximity of Halloween or just as good a time of the year as any to celebrate the winged mammals, I’ll leave that for you to decide.

The more I learn about different creatures the more I become intrigued with how nature works.

As easy as it can be to become animated about bad bugs and different pests this might serve as a great reminder of how beneficial the bat can be to agriculture.

First, the bad news.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says white-nose syndrome has killed more than six million bats in the past several years. It’s a disease responsible for killing hibernating bats in eastern North America and has been discovered as far south as Mississippi.

The good news for western agriculture is the disease has not been confirmed in Arizona, California or other parts of the West.

This is particularly useful knowledge as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) reports that bats are worth $1 billion to agriculture because of the bugs they consume – an amount equal to their own body weight each night, according to the Department of Interior.

Another study suggests the pest control services of bats likely saves agriculture at least $3 billion each year. As you will soon see, these numbers can vary widely.

Studies suggest that corn can benefit from the presence of bats. Yield-robbing fungal infections that can be a health hazard to livestock have been reduced by the presence of bats, according to AAAS.

Agricultural benefits

According to the U.S. Geological Society, a single little brown bat, which has a body no bigger than an adult’s thumb, can eat four to eight grams (the weight of about a grape or two) of insects each night.

Although this may not sound like much, it adds up – the loss of the one million bats in the Northeast has probably resulted in between 660 and 1320 metric tons of insects no longer being eaten each year by bats in the region.

For farmers, that means spraying more to kill dangerous agricultural pests. This can prove to be a costly alternative.

Bats are also pollinators. While it’s highly unlikely almond farmers will be using the furry critters to replace honey bees, bats do serve that useful function in nature.

A research paper published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that bats – and this definitely applies in the West – are “dying in unprecedented numbers at wind turbines.” There are also reports of endangered raptors being killed by these behemoth eye-sores that line hillsides in parts of California.

Bat Conservation International (BCI) reports there are 23 species of bats in California and 29 in Arizona. As one could imagine, some make their home in both states.

According to BCI, bats in central Texas have been known to eat tons of insects on a summer night. Popular targets in the United States and Mexico of these creatures include the cotton bollworm and tomato fruit worm.

BCI further reported that 2006 research concluded that freetail bats saved south-Texas cotton farmers more than $740,000 annually.

An interesting article by the University of California’s Plumas-Sierra Cooperative Extension office reports that the economic value of bats to agricultural pest control “probably exceeds $23 billion per year,” however, little data are available on the benefits bats play in individual crops.

The University of California’s IPM program has information on bats, though much of it is focused on the legitimate public health concerns of the critter. 

For the latest on western agriculture, please check out Western Farm Press Daily and receive the latest news right to your inbox.

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