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Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2006 02:39 pm

Bats are a gardener's friend

They pollinate, they eat insects, and they’re fuzzy

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Many symbols indicate that Halloween is on its way. Yards are decorated with pumpkins, ghosts, witches, spiders, and bats. Fake bats and spiders may be popular decorations, but the real deal makes people scream.

Bats are a highly misunderstood mystery of the night. They are mammals, meaning that they are warm-blooded, have hair, bear live young, and nurse their babies. Bats do have eyes and can see, although they rely more on echolocation (sonar) and smell than on eyesight.

One common myth is that most bats have rabies, but the disease is no more common among bats than it is among other mammals. According to Bat Conservation International, “during the past 50 years, only 48 U.S. residents are believed to have contracted rabies from bats.” The fear of rabies is far disproportionate to the actual risk.

Another misconception is that bats are dirty. Bats spend a great deal of time grooming their fur. The main health concern posed by bats is a fungus, found in bat droppings, that causes flulike sickness in some people.

Bats are beneficial to the environment: Some eat insects, others pollinate plants. They are the main predators of night-flying insects such as mosquitoes and crop pests. You can attract bats to your yard by including plants that will attract nighttime insect pollinators. Incredibly, a bat can eat its body weight in insects each night — as many as 3,000 insects.

If you are lucky enough to be outside at night and see bats flying around, don’t worry — they aren’t going to attack you. If a bat does come near, it has probably located a mosquito nearby.

Many bats live at least parts of their lives in Illinois: the Indiana bat, the gray bat, the Eastern pipistrel, the big and little brown bats, the red bat, the hoary bat, Keen’s bat, the Southeastern bat, the evening bat, the silver-haired bat, and the Southeastern big-eared bat. About 40 percent of bat species are listed as threatened or endangered; among our native bats, the Indiana bat and gray bat are listed federally and by individual states as endangered species.

Destruction of bat habitat, intentional killing of bats, and pesticide use are responsible for declines in bat populations. Besides reducing the food supply of bats, some chemicals are directly responsible for the deaths of bats.

Bats prefer hollow trees, peeling bark, caves, and abandoned buildings for their roosting sites, but they will also take up residence behind loose boards or shingles and in accessible attics. To rid a building structure of bats, plug all ports of entry. This should be done in November, after the bats have left for the season. You can hang a bat house to serve as an alternative roosting site.

Bats are fascinating mammals with many unique abilities. For more information on bats, visit the Web site of Bat Conservation International, www.batcon.org.

Jennifer Fishburn is a horticulture educator with the University of Illinois Extension Sangamon-Menard Unit. Contact her at www.extension.uiuc.edu/Sangamon.

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