Without bats, economy will have trouble flying

News Release: Cori Lausen / Times Colonist

January 4, 2017 

 After they replaced their Halloween décor with inflatable Santas and reindeer, most people probably never gave another thought to bats. But this winter could be lifechanging for many B.C. bats — and not in a good way. The recent discovery of bats infected with whitenose syndrome in a location in Washington state just over the border from B.C. could spell disaster for our bat populations. The syndrome has killed millions of bats in eastern North America over the past decade, but until the Washington discovery, had not been detected on the West Coast. A disaster for bats would also be a disaster for our economy. Bats are voracious consumers of insects. In fact, bats are the No. 1 consumer of nightflying insects. With many, many fewer bats circling our night skies, those insect populations are likely to explode, and that means significant damage to crops and trees, and even unpredictable changes to fisheries. A U.S. study found that bats provide up to $53 billion a year in pestcontrol services for the agricultural sector alone in the United States.

 Here in B.C., bats consume many moths that damage trees, including the caterpillars and moths of the spruce budworm. Many of the insects that bats consume start life as aquatic larvae, which are food for many freshwater fish. Shifts in insect densities and diversity can produce similar shifts in fish species. A massive dieoff of bats is going to change these patterns in ways that are hard to predict. It might mean greater reliance on artificial pesticides in agriculture or more areas of forest stripped of vegetation. Without bats controlling biting insects such as mosquitoes, we could also see an increase in cases of insect-borne diseases, such as West Nile disease. And it will mean more pests in our garden and more uninvited guests at our summer barbecues.

 Sadly, there is a very strong probability that the syndrome will flare up in B.C. this year. The disease makes the odds of winter survival extremely long for bats. Bats with the syndrome are infected with a fungus that eats at their wings and forces them to burn through their precious stored winter fat long before the return of the insect season. It spreads throughout hibernation sites, and can kill up to 90 per cent of resident bats. Bouncing back from the devastating impact of whitenose syndrome is not going to be easy for bats. While to some, bats seem like mice with wings, our only flying mammal has more in common with grizzly bears, bearing only one young each year and living 20 to 40 years.