An 'Unprecedented' Bat Die-Off Could Devastate U.S. Agriculture

Unprecedented Bat Die-Off Could Devastate U.S. Agriculture Most people don't love bats, but like good health, you'll realize that you miss them after they're gone. Experts believe many species of bats may vanish pretty soon, and their disappearance could bring profound and long-term changes not only to the environment but also to agriculture, landscaping and gardening across North America.

For several years now, scientists have been sounding alarms about a devastating fungus, White-Nose Syndrome (WNS), that has literally decimated bat populations in the Northeastern U.S. The fungus leaves a white substance on the bat's nose, wings and body, and disrupts the bat's hibernation patterns, forcing it to burn through its fat reserves, which quickly leads to starvation. Earlier this year, a survey of the bat population in New Jersey estimated that 90% of that state's bats had been killed off.

"This is on a level unprecedented, certainly in mammals," says Rick Adams, a biology professor at the University of Northern Colorado and a renowned bat expert. "A mass extinction event, a thousand times higher than anything we've seen. It's going through [bat colonies] like wildfire, with 80% to 100% mortality."

"The disease is absolutely devastating, it's unprecedented," says Mylea Bayless, a biologist with Austin, Texas-based Bat Conservation International. "It's causing population declines in wildlife that we haven't seen since the passenger pigeon."

Bayless notes that bats have slow reproductive rates, usually giving birth to just one pup a year. So bat populations, she says, are going to be very slow to recover, "if they ever do recover." The disease, adds Bayless, "is moving at a pace that's astonishing, about 450 miles per year. In four short years, it's now closer to the Pacific Ocean than it is to its point of origination in Albany, N.Y."

Your Billion-Dollar Bug Eaters

You might be saying good riddance, but think again. Bats are the primary predator of night-flying insects. That not only includes pests like mosquitoes but also insects like corn earworm moths and cotton bollworms. In their caterpillar forms, those insects can destroy crops. A 2006 study of several counties in South-Central Texas concluded that the local bat population had an annual value of over $740,000 a year as a pest control -- or up to 29% of the value of the local cotton crop.

A bat eats 60% to 100% of its body-weight in insects every day. Adams says one colony of Mexican free-tailed bats in Colorado's San Luis Valley, an important agricultural region, "pulls about 100 metric tons of insects out of the air in a year." And having bats in agricultural areas, he says, tends to move insects out of those areas, creating less need for dangerous and expensive pesticides.

And like honey bee colonies -- which have also been facing massive die-offs in recent years -- some bats are important pollinators and seed-distributors. Adams says bats are crucial to the reproduction of tropical fruits like mangos, papayas, figs and wild bananas. And in Arizona, bats are the primary pollinators for three large cactus species that support much of the region's ecosystem.

Government and Researchers Fight Back

The fungus associated with WNS is widespread in Europe, but it doesn't affect bats there. No one is sure yet how it became so lethal to North America's bat population -- but there's a possible human element. Scientists says WNS spores have been found on the clothing and gear of people exploring caves containing bat colonies. The pattern of its spread is also inconsistent with bat migration. "It went from Tennessee to Missouri and then to Western Oklahoma," says Adams, "and it doesn't seem like it would be moving like that if it was just bats."

In the meantime, humans are fighting back. Adams is hosting a conference on the crisis later this month in Denver. The event is expected to draw hundreds of bat experts from around the world. The Forest Service is banning visitors to the thousands of caves and abandoned mines that dot the landscape in at least five Rocky Mountain and Great Plains states. And the Fish and Wildlife Service has awarded $1.6 million in grants for WNS research and control.

"But we all know that's a drop in the bucket for a disease that's sweeping the country and killing 95% of an entire group of animals," says Bayless. "For some people, that may seem like money. . .not well-spent, but [what are] the economic and ecological consequences of losing an entire species? A little bit of money spent now will save us in the long term."

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The bat die off is just one more effect of global warming. The severity of the white nose disease in the US is because some of our winters have been unusually warm relative to Europe. The increased warmth frequently wakes the bats from their winter sleep at a time when their insect food sources are unavailable. I have seen lone bats wasting calories flying about in mid February looking for insects here in Northern Virginia near DC. Such an animal will return to his cave hungry and weakened making his susceptibility to lethal disease greatly increased..,.in short bats have become the canary in the global warming black hole.

June 17 2014 at 9:24 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I have noticed several things that have occured in only the past 10 years. have not seen one Honey bee, hardly ever see a Toad, salamader or a frog, now bats are dissapearing. But the only one new thing I do see is Black or Brown Streaks on the North sides of peoples Roofs......Never saw this is 50 years, only the last 10 years ! what is it Mold, Fungus, Bacteria ? how come we never had this before ? and I see it in photos all over the Country. Is it all related ? look at the shady side of roofs while driving to work. you'll see it........They are just now selling cleaners in Stores to kill it. If it's growing on roofs, then it must be growing on Trees, Beehives, Bat Nesting area's etc. Is this airbourn Mold killing the bees, and Bat's, and soon us !!!!! Untill I can figure this one out folks, Keep rotating in the seems to attach itself only where the sun dosen't shine :-) !

October 13 2010 at 8:20 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Help save the bats but remember to vote in November and gtd rid of the Dingbats.

October 13 2010 at 8:04 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to davandsher's comment

If you mean that Dingbats are Republicans than I agree.

October 13 2010 at 11:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I live in Northern Illinois, this summer there has not been one grasshopper or cricket. Normaly they are everwhere but none this year. If one species is affected it goes right down the line to another. I don't know what it means for these insects to be missing but I'm sure it will affect birds and others that depend on them as a food source. How long before it comes back to our species?

October 13 2010 at 7:15 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
bl's page news

When I was a lad in Iowa you could go out nightly and watch the bats catching insects near the street lights. No more, just as the frogs and songbirds are nearly gone now. Surely it must be all of the pesticides and insecticides along with ferral cats. I think as one woman said bat houses would definately help the situation along with the media informing the general public about the situation.

October 13 2010 at 7:03 PM Report abuse +8 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to bl's page news's comment

I lived in an apartment and the landlady lived beside the e had half round tile on all her roof peaks and at dusk seemed like a hundred bats came out hte ends. People thought her a little whacky for tolerating it. Thats the problem. No one wants to tolerate nature

October 13 2010 at 7:52 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
pat hill

our government is busy shelling out money to check the mating habits of the blue balled loonies also known as politicians and the mate the pucker balled goonie also known as a lobbyist..

October 13 2010 at 6:07 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

The End is near ,The whole world should be on its knees praying ,Just watch things will keep getting worse :(

October 13 2010 at 5:52 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Hi Catmom!

If bats and bee's die off, our food supplies will soon follow. I hope they find the culprits and eliminate them soon or we will all starve.

October 13 2010 at 5:09 PM Report abuse +8 rate up rate down Reply
James Bridges

What I want to know is how These So called experts Know that it has never happened before. ZExcuse me but Unless You are as Old as the Earth then You have no idea what might have happened at some other Time in History because you were not there to see it. Scientists come up with this sort of thing so they can Justify getting Billions of Dollars from the Government So They dont Have to do anymore work then The Politicians that Gave them the Money. Maybe it never happened before and Maybe it did No one On Earth today Knows because No one is that old. Believe what You want But me Ill believe what I can see and Not believe something someone Getting Paid by the Government That is Ruining country.

October 13 2010 at 4:51 PM Report abuse -11 rate up rate down Reply
3 replies to James Bridges's comment

Honey bees are dying off as well due to pesticides and poisons intended for hornets and people not being able to tell the difference. Einstein said that if the honey bee dies, we will soon die too.

October 13 2010 at 4:29 PM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to jpclarksville's comment

Einstein was a physicist, not a entomologist.

October 13 2010 at 7:38 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Its a vision by a native american, I believe a Hopi prophesy. They have lived in three worlds(earth changes) a dry, a wet, then another dry. When the bees disappear there will be another earth change. We are 50,000 years overdue for a magnetic reversal.

October 13 2010 at 7:46 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply