Photo: Going to bat for our furry flying friends

Bats do so much for us, Maybe it’s time we returned the favour – especially considering the dire threats many bat populations face. (Credit: Lee Carson)

By David Suzuki with contributions from with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Editorial and Communications Specialist Ian Hanington.

Bats are fascinating creatures, and they're more important than many people realize. A bat can eat more than 1,000 insects in an hour — up to 6,000 a night. Some bats consume bugs that attack agricultural crops and some feast on pests like gnats and mosquitoes. The 25 million free-tailed bats in Bracken Cave, Texas, eat more than 200 tonnes of insects every summer night!

Some bats are also pollinators. Without the services of the Mexican long-tongued bat, the agave plant, from which we get tequila, might not survive. So, right off the bat (sorry), if you like tequila but not mosquito bites, you should view bats as your friends.

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There's more. Because of their role in insect control, pollination, and seed dispersal, bats are a key part of the interconnected web of life that makes growing food possible. Even their nitrogen-rich poop makes good fertilizer. Bats do so much for us. Maybe it's time we returned the favour — especially considering the dire threats many bat populations face.

But some people are afraid of bats. Much of this is based on misconceptions about the world's only flying mammal: bats will drink your blood, give you rabies, or get stuck in your hair. Although the three species of vampire bats in Central and South America do feed on blood, they prefer to drink from cows, goats, pigs, and chickens. And rabies is rare in bats. Fewer than 40 people have contracted rabies from wild bats over the past 50 years. And despite expressions like "blind as a bat", bats can actually see quite well, and have the added advantage of echolocation for navigating, so they're unlikely to fly into you or your hair.

Many of the 1,200 known species of bats, representing a quarter of all mammal species, are in trouble. And we humans deserve much of the blame. About half the world's bat species are threatened or endangered, mainly due to habitat destruction, pollution, and direct harm by humans.

Other threats are more mysterious. Bats in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and other parts of Eastern North America are being wiped out by white-nose syndrome. A fungus causes the bats to warm and wake from hibernation in cold weather before insects are available, so they starve or die of exposure. Scientists are trying to learn why the fungus affects the bats this way, and where it comes from, but they have yet to find conclusive answers. They believe it could be an invasive species of fungus, imported from Europe through human activity, to which North American bats haven't built up immunity. A committee of experts has recommended that Canada's environment minister issue an emergency order to protect the bats under the Species at Risk Act, but the government has yet to respond. One of the greatest fears is that the fungus could spread to other bat populations, and maybe even jump the Rocky Mountains, unless we act quickly.

New Brunswick Zoologist Don McAlpine told CBC News that, because they provide natural pest control, "the loss of bats could add billions of dollars to the cost of producing food"

Besides protecting bats through legislation, people can also help by building them homes. Different bats require different types of houses, but all should be south-facing and mounted at least four metres off the ground. This will help bats in the face of increasing habitat loss, and may also discourage them from roosting in your home or garage.

We also need to have proper environmental assessments before wind turbines are installed, to reduce harm to bats and minimize other environmental impacts. Scientists suspect that dead bats found near wind-power installations (most of which are migratory species) were killed by air pressure drops rather than contact with blades. With proper environmental reviews and more research about the causes of death and ways to reduce or prevent it, we can enjoy the benefits of clean wind power without putting bats at risk.

Like so many other living things, bats illustrate how everything in nature is interconnected and that harming one plant or animal or ecosystem has cascading effects that touch us all. If we don't do everything we can to help bats, we'll all suffer — and not just from mosquito bites!

May 17, 2012

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Jun 27, 2014
3:19 PM

I grew up in the Laurentians in Quebec. We often sat out evenings and enjoyed watching the bats. These days there are no more bats in the skies, and the bug population is out of control in the spring. The little brown bat is the bat indigenous to that area. The evidence suggests it is the white nose fungus. I hope the bats can be reintroduced there. They are sorely missed.

Jan 14, 2014
11:20 AM

Great article, I work in humane bat removal in Columbus, Ohio and often run into several myths and misconceptions in my line of work. Bats are very beneficial and its important to create more awareness. Most are unaware of the benefits in which bats provide and that bats actually live in some of our own attics! If anyone wants more information feel free to look at my website and if your wondering symptoms of bats in the attic take a look at Remember though it is essential to not harm bats as they are a very vital critter. Thanks for the great article again

Feb 11, 2013
11:17 AM

Thank you for going to bat for the bats! As someone who opposed wind power for many reasons I only hope scientists begin to realize that large scale industrial wind machines are a problem for MANY aspects of the environment.. movies like Windfall and this one explain the many negative effects of wind turbines on the scale they are being produced now..the more scientists and respected people help the public realize this the better the chance of finding solutions that do much less to no harm to the environment..thanks so much for helping bat awareness! The eco system is so important.

Oct 01, 2012
12:05 PM

Hello: I was just wondering if you were informed of the plight of the fruitbats of Australia. The farmers again allowed to use shotguns on them. This of course doesn't usually kill them right out and they are left to die in misery. Since it is breeding season the pups that are left behind die from starvation and dehydration. This being allowed by a government which prides its self with being humain. The worst part of it is that two of the fruitbat species are on the International Protected Species list because their numbers are dwindling. Could you have your followers sign, send and share this petition? Thank you.

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