Bats add economic boost to Georgia

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Bats, like this horry bat, save farmers billions nationally by eating destructive insects and pollinating crops.Many people only think about bats during October, believing they add to the creepy Halloween season. But these little flying mammals are much more than Halloween decor. Bats actually perform many useful, even critical functions in nature that result in true monetary value for not just Georgians, but all of America and even worldwide.

Bats aren’t just a Halloween staple, you ay be surprised to learn that bats add an economic boost to Georgia farms and others world-wide.

“They are not as threatening or as scary as people think,” said Emily Ferrall, a wildlife biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Section of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Fun fact: The fastest bat in the world is the Mexican free-tailed bat, which can reach spurts of 100 mph.

There are more than 1,400 types of bats worldwide, making it the second largest order of mammal, behind rodentia. Georgia is home to 16 species of bats.

“Some of these are migratory, but many live here,” said Ferrall.

Emily Ferrall, a biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, studies bats, their population, and issues that impact them.

Bats add economic boost by being pest control

“The bats living in Georgia are insectivores. They only eat insects,” Ferrall said.

Given that bats in Georgia are relatively small, two-to-four inches in body length with a wingspan of five-to-ten inches, it may not seem like they can eat that many bugs, but that isn’t the case.

Even these microbats can consume 1,000 bugs per hour. Not only does this help people, but it helps farmers as well. Economists estimate that nationwide bats save farmers $742 billion in crop preservation through eating harmful insects, fertilizing, and pollination.

According to Bat Conservation International, on average, bats can eat up to half their body weight in insects per night, or roughly 3,000 bugs. Pregnant and nursing bats can consume up to 100 percent of their body weight, saving U.S. farmers about $23 billion in crop damage and pesticides.

Fun fact: Only three of the 1,400 bat species are considered “vampire” bats due to their diet being made up entirely of drinking blood. They often prey on livestock, and none of them live in North America. They are very social living in colony groups and if an individual cannot find food one night then they will share food with each other to aid in preventing starvation. 

Fun fact: The largest bat is the giant golden-crowned flying fox, which lives in Asia and has a wingspan of up to six feet!

Bats in Georgia

This Southeaster Myotis is a native to Georgia. Georgia has about 16 different species know as microbats. These microbats eat insects.

There are 16 species of bats in Georgia. All of them are insectivores, or only eat insects.

The 16 species can be found here. All are considered microbats due to their small size.

According to Ferrall, bats have a life span of about 30 years, much longer than rodents, the most populous mammal, which has a life span on average of about two-years.

Fun fact: The oldest known bat was a male Brandts myotis who lived at least 41 years.

Also unlike rodents, bats have a very low reproduction rate. A female bat gives birthto one or occasionally two pups per year.

“Bats also have delayed fertilization,” said Ferrall. “They breed in the fall, but hold the sperm until spring, then give birth in the summer.”

A pup can weigh up to a third of the size of its mother.

“Can you imagine if human babies were a third of the size of their mother?” she asked.

Bat habitats

“Some bats are generalists,” said Ferrall. “They will live anywhere.”

This Indian fruit bat, the largest of this species, lives at Lubee Bat Conservatory in Gainesville, Florida.
Photo by Sabrina McCoy

Anywhere can be caves, trees, attics or sheds, even culverts and bridges, including interstate overpasses.

Ferrell said the big brown bat, which actually weighs less than 1.5 ounces, is flexible where it roosts, and can make its home in hollow trees, under tree bark, in crevices in rock ledges and under bridges.

“They are very tolerable of people and noise,” said Ferrall.

Fun fact: The world’s largest bat colony houses up to 20 million bats. It’s located in Bracken Cave near San Antonio, Texas.

The Rafinesque’s bigeared bat, on the other hand, prefers the bottomland of swamps. Some bats, like the eastern red bat lives in trees in the summer, but come winter, they will burrow in leaf litter on the ground.

Then there is the tri-colored bat, which likes caves in the winter and trees in the summer, and the gray bat, a cave dweller that is also federally protected.

“The tri-colored bat will use culverts. We’re finding them there when there are no caves,” said Ferrall. Culverts are drains that run under roadways.

The largest bridge roost in the state of Georgia, giving home to thousands of bigbrown and Brazilian free-tail bats is in Calhoun. Read the story here.

Bats add research opportunities

Bats have a complex and tough immune system, allowing them to carry many diseases.

“Bats carry a lot of diseases we couldn’t live with,” said Ferrall. While they can carry SARS, severe acute respiratory infections, it is unknown if bats were the origin of COVID-19.

“Our native bats don’t seem to be susceptible to it,” said Ferrall, adding that whenthey work with bats, they wear personal protective equipment, including gloves, to limit the bats exposure. In addition, she warns that people shouldn’t handle bats unless the person is wearing protective gear.

Bats can live with 30 diseases that humans can’t

(Bats) carry a lot of diseases we couldn’t survive with,” she said adding that she, along with co-workers have been vaccinated against rabies to protect them. Less than one percent of bats have rabies.

The Bumblebee bat, is the smallest species of bat. Adults weigh two grams and are less than three cenimeters.

Fun fact: Microbats are the smallest type of bat. The smallest, called a Bumblebee bat, weighs two grams, or less than a half-an-ounce, as an adult and its length is one-to-two inches.

While this all sounds more scary than a vampire bat on the prowl, bats offer a chance to help humankind. Scientist study bats’ immune system to determine how to help people.

“It’s amazing how they can live with these (diseases),” said Ferrall. “It could help us to learn how they do it.”

Bats in the house?

With many bats having the adaptability to live in different places and given the small size of Georgia’s bats, it’s not uncommon for homeowners to discover these mammalstaking refuge in sheds or even attics.

“We get a lot of calls during the spring from people finding bats in their attics,” Ferrall said. She said while DNR doesn’t keep track of the calls, her office typically receives 15-20 a week in April and May.

“Ours is just one facility. We have facilities across the entire state,” she added.

Excluding bats safely

It’s a delicate issue as DNR tries to find solutions that work for the homeowner and the bats. Because several species in Georgia are federally or state protected, it’s critical to not move bats from their roosts during birthing season, which is April to July.

Fun fact: The largest bat is the giant golden-crowned flying fox, which lives in Asia and has a wingspan of up to six feet!

“After that, most pups are big enough to fly,” Ferrall said.

Removing bats, called exclusion, can be as simple as installing a one-way exit, so when the bat flies out in the evening to hunt, it cannot return to its roost. If it’s a colony of bats or a more complex situation, DNR has a list, by location, of pest control companies with staff trained in exclusions.

Bats are flexible

The good news is, bats just want to be left alone, so they most often find a new roost.

“They just want to live alone and not be bothered by humans,” said Ferrall.

White-nose syndrome

While bats have learned to live with different diseases, they are facing one that

An Indian fruit bat stretches its wings.
Photo by Sabrina McCoy

threatens to wipe out entire species if not controlled. It is already having an economic impact on agriculture.

White-nose syndrome, a fungal pathogen that discovered in 2006 in New York and 2013 in Georgia, affects cave-dwelling bats and has killed up to 93 percent of tri-colored bats in the state.

“Places that had 5,000 bats are down to 200,” said Ferrall. With the low birth-rate and high infection rate, recovery can take years.

Itchy, white fungus is deadly

White-nose syndrome is a disease caused by the fungal pathogen Pseudogymnoascus destructans. It appears as a white fungus that grows on a bat’s nose, feet, and exposed skin.

“It’s very itchy,” said Ferrall, explaining that it causes hibernating bats to wake up more often during winter, burning their fat reserves and weakening their immune system. “They scratch and the scratches can become infected.”

Researchers are now finding the fungus in culverts and caves.

Treatment is difficult

Treatment is tricky, said Ferrall. Millions of dollars have been spent on research nationwide.

“A lot of things work in the labs, but applying them to the cave environment isn’t practical,” she said.

That’s because cave systems are often complex, with many tunnels that aren’t easily navigated.

“How to treat caves is a huge problem,” Ferrall said. “Logistically, it’s very difficult.”

Balancing saving bats with protecting other animals

In addition to navigating the caves, another issue is how the treatment will impact other animals.

“We can’t help bats at the expense of other animals,” she said.

As for the bats in Georgia, Ferrall said many people don’t realize how many live here.

“You don’t often hear them because their frequency is too high,” said Ferrall. And because bats often come out at sunset and return to their roosts by sunrise, it’s easy to miss them. “But they are more prevalent than people realize.”

DNR currently has several bat studies going on around the state to help monitor populations.

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