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BEACON Senior News

The unknown benefits of bats

May 24, 2021 03:13PM ● By Jan Weeks
Image of flying bat

Dave Betts builds bat houses to conserve nature’s best pest control

Dave Betts’ love for bats started with a chance encounter.

“We lived in Black Forest, Colorado, and my wife left the bedroom door to the deck open,” said Betts, 64. “Suddenly a bat flew into the bathroom and started circling! Apparently, our ultrasonic mouse detector lured it into the house.”

Instead of panicking, Betts and his wife Sally tried to shoo the critter out, unsuccessfully. They noticed it was becoming exhausted. 

“We didn’t want the poor thing to die, so I got a couple of fishing nets and Dave held the ladder while I scooped it off the ledge where it had landed,” said Sally, 70.

After safely releasing it into the night, the couple wanted to learn more about bats.

Busting bat myths

Contrary to popular beliefs, bats are not blind, do not become tangled in human hair, and seldom transmit rabies or other diseases to people or animals. They may bite people, but typically only when provoked. 

Bats are crucial to the ecosystem. They eat up to 1,000 mosquito-sized flying insects per night, feasting on miller moths and other flying creatures. Betts said that in the Midwest, farmers who erected bat houses almost eliminated the need to use chemical pesticides. That’s because many agricultural pests, such as corn borers, are simply the larval stage of a species of moth, which bats eat.

In western Colorado, West Nile virus is spread by the bites of infected mosquitoes. The virus causes flu-like symptoms in mild cases, but it can cause dangerous conditions such as encephalitis, meningitis and, in extreme cases, death.

A large bat population destroys millions of mosquitoes per night, lowering the chance of humans becoming infected. 

Not all bats are insectivores. If you eat bananas or mangoes or enjoy the occasional margarita or tequila shooter, thank a bat. Fruit bats live on nectar and pollinate many tropical fruit blossoms. They also feed from and pollinate giant saguaro cacti and agave, among many other south-of-the-border plants. Only the vampire bat, found in Central and South America, drinks blood, but usually only from cattle, horses and other sleeping livestock. Some species feed on birds, too.

Bats are declining at a steep rate due largely in part to white-nose syndrome, caused by a fungus that affects their bare skin while they’re hibernating in an inactive state. Bats are an endangered species, so killing them is illegal.

One house at a time

Habitat destruction is another major threat to bats, so Betts decided to build bat houses for them. 

Montrose resident Dave Betts builds and sells bat houses to protect them.

Bat Conservation International, a nonprofit that works to prevent the extinction of bats, has strict guidelines for their bat house certification process. Betts had to send his first house to the organization, where they deconstructed, measured and tested it for deadly toxins before certifying him. Betts, who lives in Montrose, is the only certified bat house builder in Colorado.

Using redwood and cedar repurposed from old, torn-down decks, Betts cuts out four to five houses at a time, then assembles them. It takes him four to six weeks to build each one. 

Bats are very specific about their housing needs, especially when it comes to location.

“Bats are very insecure. They won’t roost where predators, such as cats and squirrels, can get to them, so putting one in a tree won’t work,” Betts said. 

Since bat colonies can squeeze through any hole a mouse can, the only way to get rid of them is to block their entrance while they’re out for their nightly feeding. Bats in the attic or under siding can really stink up a house, but Betts cautions against using an exterminator. 

“Just seal the holes where they get in and they’ll go elsewhere, especially if you’ve put up a bat house nearby,” he said. 

They will even roost in covered porches, leaving their stinky guano as a token. 

“One lady had 85 bats roosting in her entryway. She put up a bat house and the porch population went down to six,” Betts said.

Betts recommends putting bat houses on a 15 to 20-foot metal pole, or placing them on the side of a barn or another tall structure. Additionally, the bat house must face due south, as bats like it hot. These nocturnal animals also don’t like bright lights, even though they attract bugs.

Many bats migrate, while some hibernate in caves or other places where temperatures remain fairly steady once the outdoor temperature reaches 35 degrees. Ideally, houses should be hung in April or May, as bats return to western Colorado in June looking for homes.

“Bats are a key part of the ecosystem,” said Betts, “and I’m helping to conserve bats one house at a time.”

4 ways to a bat-friendly backyard

From Bat Conservation International

1. Install a bat house.
Where natural environments for bats are limited, installing a bat house in your backyard can provide a safe place for bats while also protecting your yard from insect pests.

 Betts’ custom bat houses sell for $125 for a single chamber and $250 for a double chamber. To order, email [email protected] 

2. Don’t tear down that dead tree.
For many bat species, dead trees are a great hangout spot. Some bats like to squeeze between the narrow space between the tree bark and wood, while others seek out tree hollows to roost. If a dead tree does not pose a safety or property concern, consider leaving it standing.

3. Don’t use pesticides.
Consider bats in your neighborhood as natural pest control. Avoid the use of pesticides in your garden and the use of remedial timber treatment agents in structures. Both can lead to the poisoning of bats. 

4. Keep cats indoors.
Keep your cat indoors at night, especially during summer when bat mothers are feeding their young. Make certain your cat is indoors a half hour before sunset and a half-hour after sunset when bats are most active.

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