A Gardeners' Unusual Christmas List
 The Truth About Bats!

 Kay Hinkle
Adams County Master Gardener

This is a good time of the year to make note of those things you wished for earlier this year when planting, weeding and harvesting kept you too busy to shop for things you want or need. 'Tis the season for giving, and as is often the case, receiving. My wish list is a bit interesting on occasion when I am wishing for the uniquely unusual things I didn't find earlier in the year. Becoming a Master Gardener does that to you!

Birdbaths and other hardscaping, unique pots or hand tools, and bird or bat boxes are just a few of the things that you may want to request when the kids ask for your wish list. I mention a bat box, because it is on my list this year. We live near a stretch of the Conewago that is dammed - a fast-flowing, babbling brook both upstream and downstream in either direction, but deep, wide and slow moving nearby.

Our deck overlooks the Conewago, and we spend a lot of time outdoors when weather permits - enjoying the surroundings, cutting the grass or tilling the soil. Mosquitoes and a variety of other insects spend quite a bit of time outdoors with us as well - which leads me to my interest in bats, and bat boxes.

Yes, they are small, furry and kind of ugly - but what bats can do for you and your garden can be beautiful. Bats consume many garden pests, and they 're great for the environment. For gardeners who suffer from mosquito bites and are concerned with the risk associated, rather than reaching for chemicals, why not reach for a bat house? One little brown bat can consume up to 600 mosquitoes per hour - imagine what 30 bats could do in your backyard overnight!

There are nearly 1000 living bat species, accounting for almost a quarter of all mammal species. Bats are the only mammal that can fly, with modified hands and arms that serve as wings capable of sustained flight. They have been flitting across the night skies for the last 50 million years, with very little change in their physical features.

Worldwide, bat populations are declining at a rapid rate, due in part to the destruction of feeding and roosting habitats as well as the misuse of toxic pesticides. Nearly 40 percent of native bat species in the United States are protected under the Endangered Species Act or are on the endangered species list.

For those who have a greater fear of bats than mosquitoes, let me dispel some of your fears by addressing some of the common misconceptions. While bats can be a carrier of rabies, you have a greater chance of contracting rabies from a cow than a bat. On average, one person per year dies from rabid bat bites in the United States, far fewer than those who die from dog bites or bee stings. While a bat may swoop at your head, it is not going after you, but the insects swarming near your head. You are the food source for the mosquito, but the mosquito is the food source for the bat.

So, why not consider mounting a bat box on your property to encourage this little mosquito sweeper and his friends to move in? Most of the bats in our area are little brown bats with the average bat house holding a colony of 30-50 bats. Hang the house 15-18 feet high on the side of a building. Keep it out of the trees to allow for plenty of sunlight as well as easy access for the bats. A bat house should be warm, facing the sun for a large part of the day, and located within a quarter mile of water that provides ample food source.

Without a bat house to attract the bats, they sleep in caves, crevices, and tree cavities somewhere near your home. Hanging a bat house close by encourages bats already in the neighborhood to concentrate on eradicating the insect population in your habitat.

A bat hangs upside down by its hind feet to sleep during day light hours, and as it hangs, its own weight causes the foot tendons to automatically grasp, firmly holding the animal in place, expending virtually no energy in hanging. The bat hibernates in the winter months, and lives for roughly 10 to 20 years. This makes the purchase of a bat house a good investment. Once moved in, bats don't move out until the food source disappears.

Now that you understand a little bit more about bats and their habits, I hope you will find them a bit less daunting. Bats really have gotten a bad rap over the years; throughout history, people have associated bats with other, more frightful creatures of the night. Over time, as some of this unjustified abuse is displaced with the truth about the valuable role they play in nature, people have begun to appreciate them for the value they bring.

If you have not yet finished your Christmas list or visited Santa to relay the status of your behavior this last year - naughty (??) or nice (??) - consider the last-minute addition of a bat box this year. Anyone can ask for a bluebird house or a garden bench; it takes a real brave soul to ask for a bat box for Christmas!

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