Of bats and mosquitoes

Mosquitoes are considered as public enemy number one.  In fact, they are deadlier than serial killers.  They can kill a person or do mass execution all at once.

Every year, mosquitoes kill 725,000 people, according to the Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO).  Beating their wings 300 to 500 times a second produces that distinctive whine that novelist D.H. Lawrence described as a “small, high, hateful bugle” in his ear.

Mosquitoes have been around since time immemorial.  While the dinosaurs had become extinct, these blood-sucking creatures are still with us.  Much as we want to exterminate them, they keep on coming back.

They may be small but they are deadly.  They transmit serious diseases such as dengue fever, malaria, yellow fever, Zika virus, and Japanese encephalitis.  In recent years, they have been in the news for carrying a whole host of new deadly blood-borne diseases.

Unknowingly, mosquitoes have predators called bats.  While most people also think of bats as pests, some bats are actually pest controllers eating thousands of insects every night.  “A single bat can eat up to a thousand mosquitoes in just one hour,” said a fact sheet published by Philippine Bat Conservation, Inc (PBCI).  “A single large bat colony can eat up to half a million pounds of insect pests in one night.”

In the United States, scientists have concluded that insect-eating bats save American farmers a minimum of 3.7 billion dollars each year by reducing crop damage and limiting the need for pesticides.

Bats play essential roles in keeping populations of night-flying insects in balance worldwide, according to the Bat Conservation International (BCI).  “The millions of Mexican free-tailed bats from Bracken Cave in Texas, the large bat colony in the world, eat up to 200 tons of insects nightly,” it said.

Unknown to many, bats are the frontline warriors against climate change.  “They are pollinators,” said Norma Monfort, the founder and president of Monfort Bat Cave and Conservation Foundation, Inc. “They maintain so many species of plants, trees and fruits that are habitats for other important species.  If we lose them completely, we stand a great chance to never again enjoy the wonderful fruits and plants we have today.”

In the wild, important agricultural plants, from bananas and guavas to cashews, dates and figs, rely on bats for pollination and seed dispersal.  Tequila is produced from agave plants that in the wild rely on bats as their primary pollinators.

The Monfort conservation foundation manages the millions of bats residing in a cave with five openings at barangay Tambo, Babak District of the Island Garden City of Samal.  These bats, Monfort said, play a big role in durian production in Davao Region.  The flower buds of durian reportedly open for one hour during the night, which allows the fruit bats to pollinate them.

“I will not stop until the (Davao) region gives the long overdue credit for these bats because you guys are so ambivalent up to now,” she told the environmental journalists who recently visited her place.  “You eat durian, you eat the fruits, you eat everything, you look at the weather and everything, bountiful harvest, no one thanks the bats, because you think they are pests.  They are not.  They’re just wonderful.”

Bats are always associated with Dracula, the prince of darkness who sucks blood from his victims.  In movies, they are part of evil creatures. 

“There are so many misconceptions about bats,” Monfort told the visiting journalists.  “Many people think bats are blind, dirty and carriers of rabies virus.  Those are myths.  Bats are not blind and do not become entangled with human hair.”

Most people feared bats because of rabies, a deadly disease.  “All mammas can contract rabies; however, the vast majority of bats do not,” informs the BCI briefer.  “Bats that contract the virus die from the disease, usually quickly, and pose little risk to people who do not attempt to handle them.”

As for sucking bloods, there are only three bat species that do that: the common vampire bat, the rarer hairy-legged vampire bat and the white-winged vampire bat.  “The common vampire bat is often seen feeding on the blood of horses and cows while the latter two prefer birds,” the briefer stated.

Researchers are studying an anticoagulant found in vampire bat saliva as a possible new treatment for human stroke patients.

Bats can be found almost anywhere in the world except the polar regions and extreme deserts, defenders.org states.  They find shelter in caves, crevices, tree cavities and buildings.  Some species are solitary while others form colonies of more than a million individuals.

More than 1,330 species of bats account for about 20% of all mammal species, BCI claims, thus making bats the second largest group of mammals in the world.  For their body size, bats live longer than any other order of mammal. On average, the maximum recorded life span of a bat is 3.5 times greater than other mammals of similar size.

Bat species are known to eat fish, frogs, birds, spiders, and small mammals like mice or other bats.  According to BCI, frog-eating bats identify from poisonous frogs by listening to the mating calls of the males. Frogs counter by hiding and using short, difficult-to-locate calls.

“A single large bat colony can eat up to half a million pounds of insect pests in one night making them the most effective natural insect controllers,” said the Philippine Bat Conservation, Inc.

There are more than 1,100 bat species in the world.  The Philippines is home to 26 indigenous bat species – more than any other country.  Unfortunately, most of these bats are threatened, if not facing extinction.

“The threat to bats in the Philippines is quite serious considering that very little literatures and researches have been published about them,” Monfort lamented. 

The Garden City of Samal, for instance, has about seventy caves, which used to be inhabited by bats.  Most of these caves are now empty.  Two of the major threats identified during the cave assessment in 2006 were bat hunting for food and excessive entry to caves for guano mining.

Guano is one of Mother Nature’s most effective natural fertilizers due to its exceptionally high content of nitrogen, phosphate and potassium.  According to Monfort, a kilogram of guano can fetch a price of P10,000.

Bats are also killed because of rumors that they are supernatural evil creatures like aswang and mananangals.  Others die because of the destruction of bat habitats like forests (for megabats) and caves (for microbats).

The author at the front gate of Monfort Bat Sanctuary

Another reason for their vulnerability: bats are among the slowest-reproducing mammals on earth due to their size.  Most produce only one pup per year.  “At birth, a pup weighs up to 25% of its mother’s body weight, which is like a human mother giving birth to a 31-pound baby,” defenders.org says.  “Offspring typically are cared for in maternity colonies, where females congregate to bear and raise the young.  Male bats do not help to raise the pups.”

Meanwhile, Monfort is trying to save the bat cave – now home to 2.5 million bats, making it to the Guinness Book of World Records – she has been taking care since she inherited the land from her parents. 

“Many have done wonderful features (in magazines, newspapers and television) on what we are doing but I am wondering why it hasn’t generated the wished query from any sector to ask: how can we help?” wondered “Mama Bat,” who earned the moniker for her love for the nocturnal creatures. – ###