In age of Zika, bats a natural form of bug control

In age of Zika, bats a natural form of bug control

UNL's Trish Freeman (second from right) discusses Nebraska bats during a natural resources orientation class in 2014.
University Communications
UNL's Trish Freeman (second from right) discusses Nebraska bats during a natural resources orientation class in 2014.

First it was West Nile Virus hitching a ride in mosquitos. Now, it's Zika.

While no cases of Zika have yet been acquired in the United States, officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are surveilling for the virus and say it’s only a matter of time until the virus encroaches into the states. Whether or not the virus makes it to Nebraska is still anyone’s guess, but officials are asking for preparations to be made.

But how? Besides stocking up on insect repellent and using some other chemicals, one natural way to help combat pests, including mosquitoes, is happening all around us as night falls — bats.

Bats eat insects to survive. Though they’re not seen very often and are creepy to some, University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor emeritus of natural history and bat expert Trish Freeman said having bats in yards and neighborhoods is an effective way to control the insect population. So far, there has been no evidence that bats contract the virus.

“I’d welcome them in my backyard,” she said, offering up a few facts on the bug-eating winged creatures of the night:

Q. How prevalent are bats here in Nebraska?

A. There are 13 species known in Nebraska and all but four stay year-round, and those four that migrate mostly go south for the winter, although bat migration is very different from bird migration. Bats are incredibly common. There are more than 1,000 different species throughout the world, which actually makes up about a quarter of all mammal species. They range in size from the weight of a nickel to very large, but the largest species in Nebraska only weighs about as much as three quarters with a wingspan of 12 inches.

Q. How are bats beneficial to humans?

A. Our insect population would be much higher without them. In fact, right now, large populations of bats are being killed in the Eastern United States by a fungus and that fungus has now been found in Nebraska. Scientists are monitoring the effects of this large die-off. It will have repercussions, especially in agriculture, since bats are very good at eating pests that can ruin crops. We’re not exactly sure how many insects they eat in a feeding, but we know they do need a lot of energy to hibernate and reproduce.

Q. Bats have a bad reputation. Are they really all that dangerous?

A. In many cultures, especially Asian cultures, bats are revered – some places even worship them – but in Western societies, we tend to think of them as gross or dangerous. They have bizarre faces and only come out at night, so you can see where that reputation or myth comes from. But we don’t have any bloodsuckers here in Nebraska. There are only three species of blood feeders in the world and none are here. And rabies isn’t really a concern, especially if you keep your pets vaccinated. Of course, if you’re bitten by a bat, you should get the series of rabies vaccinations. Of the bats that are brought in to be checked, 5 to 7 percent are found to have the virus at any one time, but that would probably be less than 1 percent of the total bat population. And bats aren’t a reservoir for the virus – it kills them, so finding a dead bat on the ground is probably more of a danger than having them in your house or yard. There are more deadly lightning strikes each year than human rabies cases.

Q. Where are bats most likely to be found?

A. They love any sort of cavernous places, and the smaller species can get into a crack as small as one-fourth of an inch. We always say, if you’re going hawking for bats, check older neighborhoods because they’ll roost in attics or large old trees. They prefer to be way up high.

Q. Is there a way to encourage them to set up shop in your yard?

A. Bat houses do work, but you can’t think of it like a birdhouse. You may put up a bat house and never have any bats, but if you do put up a bat house, make sure to use old, rough wood with no scent attached and put them up at least 15-20 feet. And bat houses work best when erected on the west or south side, because that’s where they’ll attract the most heat at the end of the day.

Q. If they’ve set up a roost in your home, can you get rid of them without calling pest control?

A. Bats are very mobile and don’t require staying in one spot. That’s why it’s actually pretty easy to get them out of your house. If you go out at dusk and watch for them and figure out where the crack is that they’re using, once they fly out, you can patch it up and they’ll find a new place to go, but we always tell people to do this in the spring or fall, so you don’t end up locking babies in your house and having a smell or a guilt problem.

Fore information, check out Nebraska Extension in Lancaster County.