Bats make great neighbors

Monday, March 14, 2011; 5:14 PM

"We want bats because we have lots of mosquitoes, and they bite us," said Kate Vidano, a second-grader at Westbrook Elementary School in Montgomery County.

She and her mother, Elizabeth Jones, were in their back yard on a chilly afternoon, putting the finishing touches on Kate's first bat house. Of course, you can buy a bat house. But all you need are two squares of wood nailed together with a little space between them. Bats like to cuddle in the cozy spot. They don't need food or water containers.

As warm weather returns, bats might rest in Kate's bat house after looking for food at night. Even better, they might like it enough to make a new home in Kate's back yard next fall.

Because one bat the size of a cellphone can eat 1,000 mosquitoes a day, she and her brother James, 11, might not get so many mosquito bites this year.

"I love bats," said Kate, 7, who discovered them during a school science project last fall. "They're the only mammals that can fly."

Scientists tell us that Kate's bat friends are really important to the environment. They eat not only mosquitoes but also other insects that destroy bees and beans, corn and potatoes, and strawberries and pumpkins. Bats also spread pollen and seeds. And more than 80 medicines come from plants that rely on bats for their survival.

"I love bats, too," said Diana M. Barber, a scientist who has written books about bats and runs the education program at Mesker Park Zoo in Evansville, Indiana. "They are the coolest things in the world."

She sometimes hikes to caves near the zoo and sits in the dark, listening to great colonies of bats hanging from the ceiling and walls. "They purr when they sleep," she said, "and the sound vibrates softly off the cave walls, kind of like tinkling feathers: a beautiful song.

"But bats are in trouble," warned Barber. Disease, pollution, windmills and pesticides might be killing them off, she said.

A disease discovered in 2006 that causes fungus to grow on the noses and wings of bats has killed more than a million bats in eastern states, including Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

"Kate's bat house can help," said Barber. "Anything to help bats would be good."

- Raymond M. Lane

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