GAINESVILLE — People of all cultures have a love-hate relationship with bats. Feared for their portrayals after decades of horror movies and centuries of folklore, bats are also the ultimate must-have for Halloween decor.
Florida has 13 species of bats year-round that are among 1,300 species worldwide, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The bat population is declining due to the loss of their natural habitats, human disruption and more. These misunderstood mammals are celebrated internationally during Bat Appreciation Week, October 24-31, to raise awareness for bat conservation.
Bats are essential partners to people and nature, serving as significant contributors to overall ecosystem wellness by quelling pest insects, pollinating plants, spreading seeds and much more, said Ken Gioeli, a natural resources and environment agent at UF/IFAS Extension St. Lucie County. As a Florida Master Naturalist instructor, Gioeli said the program educates participants about the importance of bat maternity season, bat houses and other conservation opportunities.
Gioeli first studied bats, specifically vampire bats and their relation to cattle as part of an academic field program through the Organization for Tropical Studies and a collaboration with UF and Universidad de Costa Rica. He has been working on bat-related issues since 1993. In 1999, he was part of the team that conducted a safe and successful bat exclusion at the St. Lucie Clover Park Stadium where the New York Mets conduct spring training annually.
For added measure, Gioeli offers the following bites of scientific insight and myth busters on why bats deserve love and need conservation.
Q. What are some extraordinary facts about bats to appreciate?
• Bats are our friends. They provide insect pest-management services in Florida. Almost 70% of bat species feed primarily on insects. Florida bats are insectivorous, meaning they eat beetles, moths, and other nocturnal insects. Elsewhere in the world, bats are carnivorous, eating meat like rodents, frogs and fish.
• Bats are the only mammals capable of flying. Other mammals like flying squirrels, do not fly, they glide.
Q. What are some misconceptions about bats?
• Bats do not intend to fly into human hair. People have often expressed this to me. There is nothing about your hair that is attracting bats.
• Bats won’t bite you on the neck. Vampire bats do exist, and they are found in Costa Rica and a few other Central and South American countries. They are not found in North America. Only three species of bats feed on animal blood, with two specializing in bird blood. Other bats eat pollen, nectar and fruit. These bats are vital for pollinating flowers and spreading seeds that grow new plants and trees. Some bats even eat other animals, carrion and fish.
• Bats are not blind. They rely on their sophisticated sense of echolocation. This sensory perception allows bats to navigate at night, find prey insects, and eat them in mid-flight. I use a device known as a bat detector. It converts their echolocation to sounds people can hear. When you hear a “raspberry” noise through a bat detector, that’s probably a bat eating an insect in mid-flight.
Q. With increasing rates of population loss, what are some issues impacting bat colonies in the United States?
• White nose syndrome is a fungal disease attacking bat populations. It is estimated that it has killed 5.7 million bats in the United States. Tricolor bats and other bat species that hibernate in caves are especially susceptible to this fatal disease. Several bat species in North Florida hibernate in caves. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has published information indicating that while our cave hibernating bats are at risk, there are no indications the disease has spread to Florida.
• Become educated about bat facts versus myths. Understand that there may be differences between the general information about bats that is readily available and what is factual for bat populations in your area. For example, you might find information about bats as mosquito eaters. However, in my area of South Florida, mosquitoes are low on their dietary preferences. People in South Florida will raise bat houses with the misconception that they will significantly reduce mosquitoes in an area. That’s just not factual.
• If bats reside in bridges and buildings and become an unsanitary nuisance, they can be safely excluded by trained experts using excluder devices. This process involves using screens and other devices to safely block bats from returning to their roosts. This process is only legal outside Florida bat maternity season, April 15 - August 15.
• Bat houses can be alternative habitats for bats. There is no guarantee that bats will reside in a bat house, but it is an opportunity to promote conservation. It is essential to assess where you install your bat house and why you are use it. I do not typically recommend people install bat houses near human dwellings. They are likely best in natural areas to avoid the possibility of bat colonies spreading into homes and other buildings.