Bats hang upside down easily with locking feet.

Nothing is as inviting as a chirpy summer evening with good friends sitting around the porch and yard enjoying the twilight and cooling temperatures. But then along comes that all-too-familiar, faint sound (high-pitched, distant kazoos) followed by a brief silence, then 'SLAP!' go our hands to our faces, necks, legs, etc… Before too long the stifling indoors look more inviting, and once again the pesky mosquitoes readily regain their turf, breaking up a crowd in less time than a mob squad.

What do we do? All too commonly, we get out the bug repellent chemical sprays and douse ourselves, but what are we really doing to lessen the numbers of mosquitoes? Not much. The same goes for our horses. We can spray them down, but the mosquitoes just bite someone else.

So how can we fight back? Try bats.
No, not the baseball kind (unless you happen to be a swift and accurate slugger like Hank Aaron or Mark McGuire). I mean the living, breathing, flying, radar-emitting, horror-story, live-in-a-cave kind of bat. These critters can help you bite back at insects, because they enjoy insects for every meal. Talk about a barn buddy, these fellas are tops. How could you not love these furry little upside-down creatures? One look at that fuzzy little face and … well… they do look a little scary, don't they?

For centuries these helpful creatures have been BATtling for acceptance, thanks to old wives' tales and entertainment wizards who have created a horrific and distorted bat image that may never die. So to set the record straight, let's look at the facts about bats to realize why they can be good friends to our horses, and to all of us.

First of all, bats are mammals. They give birth to live young (not eggs, once a year, usually only one offspring, but sometimes twins and triplets, nursing their young), have a hair coat (and whiskers), lose their baby teeth, etc. - you know, a lot like humans. Experts have counted almost 1000 living bat species, accounting for nearly one-quarter of all mammal species, though the numbers per species are dangerously dwindling. Some bats are small and lightweight having a wingspan of about 6 inches; others are actually considered large animals such as the 'flying fox' in Asia with a wingspan of up to 6 feet and weighing 2 pounds. There is even a species that is white, called the 'ghost' bat. Ears and facial structures differ dramatically from species to species. Foods vary too - from the tiniest of insects to scorpions, fruits, small mammals, and even fish. The smaller bats, who eat mostly insects and sometimes fruit, can be found all over the world. One small bat will eat over 600 mosquitoes in an hour - about half its body weight per night. How's that for a SWAT team?

Bats are the ONLY flying mammal ('flying' squirrels technically glide), so are placed in their own order - Chiroptera, Greek for hand-wing. The delicate, translucent wing of a bat is like a modified, webbed, long-fingered hand. Most bats roost (rest and sleep) hanging upside down by their automatically locking hind feet, which hold them firmly in place. Some hibernate. Bats can use their legs to walk, but cannot jump up and take off in flight from the ground; they must drop from a reasonable height to get started. (If you find a bat walking on the ground, don't try to shoo it to take off, because it can't.)

Bat wings are delicately thin and translucent.

For navigation and to find their food, they send out a sound and 'listen' for the echo - known as echolocation, or radar. They are not blind, by the way; in fact they often have very good eyesight, even in the dimmest of light. Nearly all bats are active by night (thus the helpful radar) and/or during the twilight hours of dawn and dusk. Their life spans range between 10 and 32 years, depending on the species.

So to enlist some of these superheroes for duty at your farm, all you need to do is provide a shelter for them to live. Build it and they will come, and they will feed themselves. Marshlands, where there are many dead trees for them to live in and insects to eat, and caves are natural bat habitats and should be preserved. To invite them closer to houses and barns, a bat house is ideal for them to roost (they DON'T build nests, in hair or anywhere). A bat house has narrow slits to imitate separating tree bark and is large but rather flat, placed upright against a house or barn wall. Not all bat houses are alike; bats prefer long, wide houses to short, stout ones. The Organization for Bat Conservation (OBC) is one place that offers ready-made bat houses as well as a guide to making your own. Bat Conservation International also has some great information on successful bat houses.

A natural water source (water attracts insects, and insects attract bats), planting trees, leaving dead and dying trees standing, and providing housing will attract bats. Various herbs and flowers that release scent at night will attract flying insects, which in turn will attract bats. Not disturbing bats in their roosting spots and avoiding man-made insecticides help ensure that they will stay. Mercury vapor lights in your backyard will also attract insects that bats will enjoy.

Bats as heroes

Bats are the most important natural enemies of night-flying insect pests, including flies and mosquitoes, helping to protect our animals and us from such diseases as malaria, equine infectious anemia, and heartworms. Bug zappers, step aside. Bats play a vital role in maintaining the balance of nature. They are important pollinators of plants and are agents of seed dispersal, both of which contribute to the health of the environment. They help plants and trees to reproduce and proliferate for the many people and animals that depend on them for food and shelter. Bats also produce guano, their manure - a nitrogen-rich fertilizer. Where there are large numbers of bats there are large piles of guano. Bats are actually very clean animals, however. Bats will not interfere with feeding backyard birds.

Bats as hazards

In spite of studies that give evidence to the contrary, bats are still frequently labeled as carriers of disease, such as rabies. Far fewer people die from a rabid bat bite than die from dog bites or bee stings. In fact, you are more likely to win the lottery, or to die from the plague or being struck by lightning, than to die from a rabid bat bite. Bats don't attack people; they are little, gentle animals, but they are wild, and meant to be left alone, and will probably bite if touched or threatened.

Yes, there is a vampire bat in South and Central America that lives on blood (2 tablespoons per day needed to survive), BUT the saliva of vampire bats contains an anticoagulant (to prevent the blood from clotting) which is used to make the drug Draculin (!), prescribed for heart attack and stroke patients.

Hazards to bats

Man is a big hazard. Throughout the world, bat populations are declining at a rapid rate, and some have recently become extinct. Forty percent of all bat species are endangered or threatened, due to ignorance, destruction of feeding and roosting habitats, and toxic pesticides. In many nations, bats are unjustifiably earmarked as nuisances or threats to public health and killed.

Migration is demanding energy-wise, and adverse weather and accidents contribute to fatalities. As fat is burned off for energy during migration, pesticides in the bats' body fat are released into the bloodstream and can cause sickness and death. Bats are faced with an assortment of predators - snakes, hawks, owls, weasels, raccoons, and wild and domestic dogs and cats - as well as assorted diseases.

In the United States, many native bat species are currently protected under the federal Endangered Species Act or are official candidates for inclusion on the nation's endangered species list. Several other countries have adopted conservation strategies as well. In most species the female bat has only one offspring per year, so bringing the numbers back up will take time. Without the help of conservation and man-made bat shelters, these gentle creatures would soon run out of housing in our crowded world.

How to help bats

Teach others what you know about the uniqueness and beneficial nature of bats. Let them know not to fear bats and not to hurt them. Help save and preserve places where bats live such as marshes by joining organizations like the Nature Conservancy, the Audubon Society, or the Organization for Bat Conservation that are dedicated to teaching people about bats and conserving bat populations and habitat. Get a bat house, and enjoy watching your helpers swoop for bugs. Say NO to chemicals! Bats eat a lot of insects, and tainted bugs can kill them.

So if you are wiped out from rubbing on fly wipes, on the fritz from spritz (fly spray), and sick of sickening the environment with insecticides, forget the horrible rumors about bats you may have heard - it's just a bunch of guano. Protect and save bats instead; build a bat house and let 'em come, so they can help us naturally, at night while we sleep.

Bats are wild animals. It is illegal in most states to have a bat as a pet and a federal offense to possess a threatened or endangered bat species. Please realize that wild animals, including bats, do not like to be kept as pets; they belong in the wild.

Other bat information, other bat channels:

OBC, The Organization for Bat Conservation (Adopt-A-Bat, Sponsor a Bat)
1553 Haslett Road
Haslett, MI USA

World Conservation Union (also known as IUCN, International Union for the Conservation of Nature)
IUCN USA, Multilateral Office
1630 Connecticut Avenue NW, 3rd Floor
Washington, DC 20009-1053 USA

Bat Conservation International (a nonprofit organization)
PO Box 162603
Austin, TX 78716