Bats a useful tool

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July 15, 2013 - 12:00 AM

Bats, often portrayed as being on the dark side, may one day become an important insect-control tool for cities such as Iola.
Bats depend on flying insects for nourishment and can capture and eat as many as 1,200 in a single night’s foray, said Steve Barlow, wildlife biologist.
He and Iolan Don Erbert hope to capitalize by building and selling community size houses, one of which can accommodate up to 40,000 roosting bats.
Erbert has a construction company; Barlow has a background in bat culture. They met through both being associated with the National Wild Turkey Federation.
The bat houses cost about $3,000. Barlow predicts having one in Iola could pay for itself by replacing the need to spray for mosquitoes twice a week during warm-weather months.
In addition to gulping down insects by the handful, bats also are interesting and entertaining to watch, Barlow said.
“When they come out at sunset it’s like smoke boiling out of one of the roosting houses,” he said. “It’s also interesting to watch them swoop down to get a drink of water,” and dart about chasing insects.

FOR PUBLIC acceptance of bats as insect control, it’s important to separate fact from fiction, Barlow said.
— Bats are mammals, and as such they can contract rabies. But, he said, “the incidence of rabies in bats is one of the lowest among all mammals. Feral cats, coons and skunks are much more likely to have to rabies. Also, if a bat were rabid, it coming in contact with a human is much less likely than with most other mammals.”
— Bats aren’t blind. “They see at least as well as most humans,” Barlow said, and also have a sonar-type feature that permits them to track and gobble up insects. “They fly erratically because they’re chasing insects.”
— Bats are not related to rodents. “Actually, they closer akin to humans and primates,” he said.
Once bats are better understood, their acceptance will grow and they can have a role in pest control, Barlow said.
“Kansas right now is kind of a black hole for bat roosting houses,” he said. “Many states, including a lot of conservation agencies and groups, have embraced them to control insects, but there’s only one large house in Kansas, near Manhattan. I’ve sold several in Florida.”
Small bats houses have been on the market for several years, but they aren’t as effective — some are poorly designed — in attracting enough bats to eliminate insect problems, he said.
“I’ve had a little one in my yard for several years,” Erbert interjected, and allowed it hadn’t drawn many bats.
The houses Erbert and Barlow are building can hold up to 40,000 bats on vertical slabs of 3/8-inch plywood.
A house contains 21 sheets of four-by-eight-foot plywood, with each sheet cut in half to make 42 two-sided roosting areas. A complete house weighs 800 pounds. They are delivered on pallets and are easily lifted to the top of a 12-pole with a forklift.
Bats alight at the bottom of the plywood and then crawl as high as they can, where they hang upside-down and sleep.
The concept is taken from bats’ natural roosting habit of hanging in crevices of old trees.
“Deforestation has eliminated lots of roosting spots for bats,” which opens the door for the large houses that are mounted atop poles, Barlow said.
Of 47 species in the United States, 12 easily adapt to the houses, including brown evening bats that are common in Kansas.
Barlow has been building the houses on a custom-order basis and had fallen behind when by happenstance he mentioned the project to Erbert.
A lull in construction led Erbert to suggest he build a few — his crew can do in a day or less what it took Barlow a week to accomplish — and a partnership developed.

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