WASHINGTON — Pest-control services provided by insect-eating bats in the United States likely save the U.S. agricultural industry at least $3 billion a year, and yet insectivorous bats are among the most overlooked economically important, non-domesticated animals in North America.
“People often ask why we should care about bats,” said Paul Cryan, a U.S. Geological Survey research scientist.
His research analysis suggests that bats “are saving us big bucks by gobbling up insects that eat or damage our crops. It is obviously beneficial that insectivorous bats are patrolling the skies at night above our fields and forests — these bats deserve help.”
The value of the pest-control services to agriculture provided by bats in the U.S. alone range from a low of $3.7 billion to a high of $53 billion a year, estimated the study’s authors, scientists from the University of Pretoria (South Africa), USGS, University of Tennessee and Boston University.
They also warned that noticeable economic losses to North American agriculture could well occur in the next four to five years because of the double-whammy effect of bat losses due to the emerging disease white-nose syndrome and fatalities of certain migratory bats at wind-energy facilities.
In the Northeast, however, where white-nose syndrome has killed more than 1 million bats in the past few years, the effects could be evident sooner.
“Bats eat tremendous quantities of flying pest insects, so the loss of bats is likely to have long-term effects on agricultural and ecological systems,” said Justin Boyles, a researcher with the University of Pretoria and the lead author of the study.
“Consequently, not only is the conservation of bats important for the well-being of ecosystems, but it is also in the best interest of national and international economies.”
A single little brown bat, which has a body no bigger than an adult’s thumb, can eat 4 to 8 grams (the weight of about a grape or two) of insects each night, the authors wrote.
Although this may not sound like much, it adds up — the loss of the 1 million bats in the Northeast has probably resulted in between 660 and 1,320 metric tons of insects no longer being eaten each year by bats in the region.
“Additionally, because the agricultural value of bats in the Northeast is small compared with other parts of the country, such losses could be even more substantial in the extensive agricultural regions in the Midwest and the Great Plains where wind-energy development is booming and the fungus responsible for white-nose syndrome was recently detected,” said Tom Kunz, a professor of ecology at Boston University.
The loss of bats to white-nose syndrome has largely occurred during the past four years, after the disease first appeared in upstate New York. Since then, the fungus thought to cause white-nose syndrome has spread southward and westward and has now been found in 16 states, including Ohio, and three Canadian provinces.
Bat declines in the Northeast, the most severely affected region in the U.S. thus far, have exceeded 70 percent.
Populations of at least one species, the little brown bat, have declined so precipitously that scientists expect the species to disappear from the region within the next 20 years.
The losses of bats at wind-power facilities, however, pose a different kind of problem, the researchers claim.
Although several species of migratory tree-dwelling bats are particularly susceptible to wind turbines, continental-scale monitoring programs are not in place and reasons for the particular susceptibility of some bat species to turbines remain a mystery, Cryan said.
In addition to direct collisions with wind turbines, bats can also suffer lung damage caused by pressure changes bats experience when flying near moving turbine blades.