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A Barn Full of Bats

Since I often think of my barn as my church, it is altogether proper to admit that I have bats in my belfry. The hayloft is full of these furry little phantoms of the night. It happened entirely by accident as is true of so many good things on our farm. When we built the barn, we nailed triangular plywood plates on both sides of all the rafters where they met at the peak of the roof. (See photo.) The space between these plates, which is the thickness of the 2 by 6 rafters, must be just right for Brown bats because they soon took up residence there which means we have about twenty bat houses across the whole roof peak. The bats hang in that space in clusters, usually upside down. Because of them, we’ve rarely suffered much from mosquitoes, even though the barn is surrounded by woodland. The rain barrel that catches water off the barn roof is almost always full of mosquito larvae in summer but only on rare occasion do mosquitoes swarm around my head, and never for any prolonged period of time. The bats get them.

Bats are the most effective control for mosquitoes we have, say entomologists. An interesting article about them in the current (Fall 2011) issue of the Draft Horse Journal by Judy Brodland points out how blessed bats are in horse barns since mosquitoes can drive horses nearly crazy buzzing and biting around their velvety soft noses. I don’t know how the experts did the counting, but a bat can eat some 3000 insects in one night, they say. That’s a lot of mosquito bites that never happen.

I am pleased to say, after thirty years of sharing our barn loft with twenty to forty bats every summer, that I have never once been attacked by a bat, let alone contracted rabies, nor has any farm animal gotten rabies or suffered any kind of poisoning from bat manure, nor I have ever seen a sick bat, nor has a bat gotten tangled in my hair (well, I used to have hair). How these myths continue despite so much expert literature to the contrary never ceases to amaze me. Bats look fearsome, and three kinds in Central and South America do suck blood (from animals not humans) so I guess the superstitions will go on. The incidence of rabies in bats is so rare that even cats get the disease more often and that is a rare thing too. Rabies usually shows up in wild animals like raccoons, skunks, foxes, coyotes and unvaccinated dogs. Bats do not “carry” rabies; they get it just like other wild animals do. Just for perspective, dogs kill about 32 people every year; bats account for about one human death per year. You are much more likely to die of lightning.

I used to worry about bat manure (guano) because of something I read years ago saying it could transmit some disease to sheep. For awhile I would sweep up the guano that fell on the loft floor under our accidental bat houses so it wouldn’t get in the hay. But Brodland in the article referred to above says that is “a silly myth” too. Guano in fact is great organic fertilizer and if you’ve tried to buy some lately you know that it is expensive too.

One thing I can tell you for sure about bats that I doubt you will read anywhere else. Our hay loft doubles as a basketball court and bats do not like to watch basketball games. The thump of the basketball ricocheting around the loft disturbs them exceedingly. They dart around and squeak what I presume are unprintable bat words at us for disturbing their peace. But they finally get used to the noise and crouch in their houses staring disconsolately out at us like Cleveland Cavalier fans watching their team lose yet another game.

Bats do sometimes dart at humans. That’s because warm blooded animals and the carbon dioxide we expel in our breathing attract mosquitoes and the bats know it. They aren’t diving at us. They are after mosquitoes.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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