The Sinking Sun Ritual
The ancient summer ritual begins to unfold with the sinking sun on the western horizon. One of the best “seats” to view and enjoy the magical dance in Northwestern Pennsylvania is on the shores of an inland lake, a favorite creek, or an isolated pond. The bobber begins it’s up and down dance with a fish as the water lilies close for the night, a few fireflies begin to flicker, perhaps a frog or two will croak. And as the sun sinks further, the little brown bats begin to emerge with their zig-zag dance for nocturnal insects. Perhaps, an owl will lend it’s voice.
The sinking sun ritual is relaxing, mostly quiet, peaceful and ancient. The ritual has been appreciated by countless people, even well before 1492. Tragically, however, the 2013 nightly ritual just wasn’t the same in the northwestern regions of Pennsylvania. The zig-zagging little brown bats, once the most common bat species in the state, have all but disappeared. In some areas, they have not returned to their summer dwelling places to perform their ritual.
A Deadly Fungus
Many of the little brown bats have apparently died beginning last winter in northwestern Pennsylvania from what is called White-nose Syndrome WNS), something of a mystery disease.
Terry Lobdell of Crawford County in northwestern Pennsylvania has been fascinated with the little browns for decades. He has constructed bat houses on his own property, maintains and monitors numerous other bat houses throughout the region. He also has frequent workshops throughout the region regarding bat houses and their life cycle.
“I have always been fascinated with bats and one year, since I worked as a carpenter, decided to build my own bat house,” he said. “I have a wooded property and have a nice vegetable and I thought a bat house would help control the insect population. Well, the bats certainly helped and the first time I opened my bat house after they moved in and I saw them hanging there with their big buldging eyes, I was hooked.”
According to Lobdell, the WNS fungus was discovered in northwestern western Pennsylvania at Oil Creek State Park, near Titusville, PA, during the winter of 2012-13. A spokesperson at the popular state park confirmed the tragic findings and said many bats have simply disappeared from the region.
Lobdell, who lives around 20 miles from the state park, is worried.
“I am seeing far fewer little brown bats this summer,” he said. “The numbers are down by over 50 percent. At the Woodcock Creek Nature Center operated by the Crawford County Conservation District we counted 275 bats at the bat observation box. Shortly before July 4, we counted between 80 and 90.”
Kathy Uglow, the environmental educator at the Nature Center located at Meadville, PA said the bat observation boxes are a popular attraction and people will gather near them at sundown to watch the bats emerge.
A Fatal Winter Exit
According to Lobdell, many researchers and scientists are currently working to find a possible cure or preventative measure to help the bats escape the fatal fungus. WNS was first discovered near Albany, New York. It has since spread rapidly throughout the eastern and mid-western sections of the United and parts of Canada. WNS is now confirmed in 22 states. WNS apparently is not harmful to humans or domesticated pets.
The WNS fungus basically awakens the bats during winter hibernation and they use whatever energy they had stored for their winter slumber. Even though it is winter, the bats leave their winter quarters in search of food. Bats flying during the dead of winter is what tipped off officials at Oil Creek State Park.WNS only seems to attack the bats during winter hibernation; it is not found during the summer months.
The name White-nose Syndrome comes from the outward appearance of the disease on the bats. The bats appear to have a white mucus on their faces and wings. Currently, the fungus attacks the little brown bats; it also attacks the big brown bats but not as dramatically.
“The bats simply just starve to death,” Lobdell said.”Western Pennsylvania was the only place in the entire state where people could still observe the bats. For the most part, since 2008 colonies of the little brown bats have all but disappeared throughout much of the state.”
Bats Save Money
Bats are important in the environment because of the large quantities of insects they consume nightly, particularly mosquitoes. The pesky insect can carry any number of harmful diseases which pose a health hazard to people and pets. Western Pennsylvania has had an unusually wet spring and early summer and the mosquito populations are thriving. Health officials have raised concerns about West Nile virus in particular.
It is estimated that a female little brown bat will consume her weight in night insects. With less bats and more bugs, the declining bat population will likely impact agriculture. It could cost millions of dollars, even billions, to spray pesticides to control the bug population once fodder for the bats.
How to Help
One step home and property owners can do to help the bats is to construct bat house, according to Lobdell.
” A good bat house will help the bats during the summer months, particularly if there are bats in nearby buildings or homes,” he said. “The bats will move in rather quickly if they are around nearby.”
The 10 Rules for Building a Successful Bat House in NW Pennsylvania from Lobell are:
A dark exterior. The outside of a bat house must be stained or painted a dark flat color for proper heat absorption. Black is best, but dark brown, blue or green will work also. I mainly use a chocolate brown for NWPA.
2. Mount in full sun. The more direct sun the house gets the better. Maternity colonies especially need high temperatures to raise their young.
3. Mount at least 12 feet off the ground. Bats need adequate room when exiting to take full flight.
4. Do not mount bat houses in trees! Bat houses mounted in the shade do not achieve high enough temperatures to attract bats. An exception would be a dead tree with no foliage.
5. A clear exit flight path. High weeds, tree limbs and wires can interfere with and be a hazard to bats as they exit the house.
6. Waterproof and draft free. A dry, draft free interior is a must especially for mothers raising pups.
7. Ventilation in the lower 1/3 of the house. Ventilation provides a wider temperature range so bats can move around to their desired temperature and fresh air supply.
8. At least 3 crevices. Boxes must have at least 3 crevices to provide enough temperature variation and to hold temperatures throughout the night.
9. Crevice size. No less than ¾” and no more than 7/8″ crevice size. ¾ ” crevices attract fewer wasps. Both little and big browns love ¾ inch crevices. I use all ¾ inch crevices in my bat boxes.
10. Interiors free of splinters & metal. Certain types of wood can be a hazard developing splinters as it dries out. Metals other than stainless steel corrode rapidly when exposed to bat urine. Aluminum becomes toxic!
Other Good Resources
The Pennsylvania Game Commission is also asking residents to help by participating in a bat count. More information on the statewide bat count can be found at www.pgc.state.pa.us.
Another useful site for updates on the bats and how to safely remove them from unwanted attics and the like can be found at http://www.batcon.org/
For now, the sinking sun ritual is missing some members in large numbers, hopefully with research and helpful humans, the ritual will be played out for many more centuries.