Bats Worth Billions to Agriculture—But They’re Dying Fast

By Valerie Ross | April 1, 2011 3:31 pm

What’s the News: Bats are an economic boon worth approximately $23 billion per year, and possibly up to $54 billion, to U.S. agriculture, a study in today’s issue of Science estimates. Their voracious appetite for insects—a colony of 150 brown bats eats about 1.3 million pesky, crop-chomping bugs each year—means that bats function as effective, and free, natural pesticides.

How the Heck:

  • previous study found that bats saved farmers an average of $74 an acre in pesticides (ranging from $12 to $174 an acre), across eight cotton-growing counties in southeastern Texas.
  • Using that figure as a jumping-off point, the researchers extrapolated how much the disappearance of bats across the nation would cost per year. They came up with the yearly cost of $3.7 billion to $54 billion, putting their own estimate at $22.9 billion.
  • That estimate, they point out, just includes money saved purchasing pesticides; it doesn’t take into account secondary costs, like the impact of pesticides on the environment.

What’s the Context:

  • Unfortunately, bats are dying at an alarming rate. The mysterious, as-yet-incurable white-nose syndrome has killed over a million bats in the U.S. and Canada since 2006.
  • Nor is white-nose syndrome all bats are up against: Wind turbines can kill them two different ways.

The Future Holds:

  • It’s not looking good for the bats. White nose syndrome may drive some New England species to extinction within 15 years, and the disease is still spreading.
  • Nor is there much money going into the hunt for a cure: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service spent only $2.4 million studying white-nose syndrome last year—about a tenth of a percent of the low-end estimate of bats’ economic value—and research budgets for the disease are likely to shrink even further, reports Brandon Kiem at Wired Science.

Reference: Justin G. Boyles, Paul M. Cryan, Gary F. McCracken, and Thomas H. Kunz. “Economic Importance of Bats in Agriculture.” Science, April 1, 2011. DOI: 10.1126/science.1201366.

Image: Flickr / longhorndave

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World
  • The Klepto

    So, if we can believe the preachers who say natural disasters are because of our sins, that must mean that their are some seriously sinful bats out there. New England must be the home to Bat Sodom and Bat Gomorrah…

  • Christopher Kandrat

    There goes a large population of our crops and agriculture. Bats are one of the natures best defenses against pests.

  • Wesley

    I don’t know, 2.4 million still kind of sounds like a lot. They can’t figure anything out with that much money?

  • Gil

    @3 if you already had a cure, you might be able to prove it was effective with $2.4 million. That’s the cheap step, though.

  • Chris the Canadian

    2.4 million is a minor drop in a huge bucket. It’s not much at all. The Bee population crash and Bat decline due to disease is NOT A good sign at all for North American Agriculture.

    White nose syndrome and the death of billions of bees and their decline = overuse of pesticides and herbicides without knowing their long term effect on the ecosystem? Bet on it. I won’t be surprised if they find one of the leading causes of White nose syndrome leads back to these chemicals.

  • Katharine

    Has anyone thought of perhaps captively breeding these animals to bolster wild populations?

  • Iain

    White nose syndrome? Quit importing coke and maybe they’ll get over it.

  • linda

    No bats….no bees…’s so depressing.

  • Wesley B

    I thought the bee population had stabilized in 2008. One of my long-term plans is to grow a lot of my own food, including a small bee hive to promote production and plant health over time. I live in the Central Valley area in CA and I remember seeing a “bat shelter” for lack of a better term at the Fresno Chaffee Zoo. Maybe we can boost populations with large tracts of these, similar to the concept of a wildlife refuge, to stave off stress on the species while the bats either develop a resistance to this er syndrome (is it a virus, bacteria, or what?) or we develop one through research (though this seems unlikely).
    Also a quick search comes up with a number of easy-to-construct bat houses one could build in a day, if you would like to attract bats to your area for whatever reason: farming, gardening, general distaste for flying bugs.

  • Anonymous

    Step 1: Gather 100 healthy male bats and 100 healthy female bats. These will be kept for breeding should the disease become a critical threat.
    Step 2: Gather 100 afflicted bats, for sample analysis, etc.
    Step 3: Using fungal samples from the afflicted bats, nail down an antifungal drug and put together a delivery system that focuses on respiration. It’s a pretty safe bet that it’s breathed in, and the white mold collects near their nostrils.
    Step 4: Get commercial farming companies to stop spraying pesticides.
    Step 5: ???????????
    Step 6: Profit!

  • Gil

    I think the problem with captive breeding is that some of the affected species only make one pup per year, so it will make recovery incredibly slow.


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