If you were a fine young fellow or lady of good family and fortune in the court of English King Henry VII, indispensable to your royal chitchat was The Book of St. Albans, published in 1486.
In addition to indispensable trivia on hawking and heraldry, St. Albans put forth the colorful collective nouns that still pop up in party conversation — a flock of crows is a murder; ferrets gather in businesses; and groups of jellyfish and cats are, respectively, smacks and clowders.
And what of bats? Bats, then as now, suffer from bad PR. You might expect a bevy of bats, but no – bevy is reserved for larks. Bats merit only colonies or clouds. Lest we go another 400 years with such pedestrian bat terms, I propose we embrace a new descriptor, a prosperity of bats.
If you’re a member of BCI, you know why. Bats are important pollinators in the southwestern United States and around the world. Fruit bats’ dispersal of seeds is key to the rainforest regeneration. Insectivorous bats consume billions of moths and other insects every night. A study published in Science of “ecosystem services” provided to agriculture by bats estimated that bats provide about $23 billion/year in chemical-free pest management in the United States alone. A 2006 study in eight south-central Texas counties showed bats save cotton farmers about $750,000/year, arguably making bats the difference between profit and loss.
Surprisingly, few other studies have been done on bats’ economic and ecological value. So bats remain under-valued in most of the world and by many of those who gain the most. In my home state of Pennsylvania, hard hit by White-nose Syndrome, mortality for little brown bats is above 98 percent. Yet the agriculture industry there has remained silent on listing the little brown bat and other WNS-decimated bats as state-endangered.
Think how persuasive studies on the benefits of such bats to Northeast farming could have been – but such studies don’t exist and can’t be done now that these once-common bats are gone from the landscape. Stimulating such research elsewhere will be a global priority for BCI in the months and years ahead.
All of us who love and appreciate bats have a role to play in changing public perceptions. I began this column on a light note, but the issue is all-too-deadly serious. We have only an inkling of bats’ importance to the ecosystems in which we and they live. Like rejuvenating fire in the pine barrens or nutrient-rich spring floods in an estuary, bats themselves may be a landscape-scale ecological process that helps define and sustain some ecoregions. It’s an intriguing and not altogether far-fetched notion, one that bears more attention from the scientific community.
In the meantime, at your next party, royal or otherwise, try remarking on the prosperity of bats you witnessed on your last vacation. It might catch on.
Andrew B. Walker
Veteran conservationist Andy Walker, formerly of The Nature Conservancy and the New College Foundation, where he was president and CEO, became Executive Director of Bat Conservation International on January 30, 2013.