Those nighttime creatures might be creepy, but they’re VIPs of our ecosystem.
Try this: Approach a random kid and say, “Hey, kid! There’s a bat!” Most likely, the kid will run away in terror, screeching like a hyena. That’s because bats have a bad rap: It was ingrained in our brains at an early age that they are bloodsucking nocturnal bastards that violently swarm while we sleep. They are demonic beasts that wanna bite and kill. Or, at the very least, they want to get their bat-kicks by swooping down and getting stuck in our hair.
Either way, they are almost always associated with the bad guys (See: Dracula), or troubled heroes whose magnanimity is often questionable (See: Batman).
This is all bullshit. Bats are actually gentle creatures—aside from a few bloodsucking species found in Latin America—but even those want little to do with humans. Those commonly found in the United States just wanna hang in caves and in our attics during the winter, and, in the warmer months, eat insects.
More importantly, bats are an integral part of our ecosystem. They are the primary predators of nighttime insects, including various kinds of pests that like to ruin crops. They consume stink bugs, spotted cucumber beetles, corn ear-worm moths, emerald ash borers and their larva. All of this saves Pennsylvania farmers about $74 per acre—or about $277.9 million per year. Which means fewer harmful pesticides are used in the foods we eat.
Not to mention that in just one hour, a single Little Brown Bat eats about 1,000 mosquitos. So, when you’re sitting in the park sucking down PBR tallboys and not being eaten alive by skeeters (which also transmit diseases to humans and livestock), thank the bats.
But this is all changing for the worse. Large swaths of our bat population are being wiped out by White Nose Syndrome (WNS), a fungus that grows on the faces and wings of bats. Transmitted from bat-to-bat, the fungus preys on colonies during hibernation, when bats’ strength is already low, and they naturally suppress their immune systems—namely, conditions that optimize the spread of WNS. Since 2006, when scientists first detected WNS in North American bat populations, an estimated 5.5 million to 7 million bats have died across 20 states. According to the Austin, Texas-based bat advocacy organization Bat Conservation International (BCI), many locations are reporting 100 percent mortality rates. Two of the six impacted species—Little Brown Bats and Big Brown Bats—are the most common in the Philadelphia area. Some scientists have predicted that, in 20 years, and without drastic action, the Little Brown Bat could become extinct. Cave biologists studying cases of WNS in Pennsylvania bats claim there has already been a 90 percent to 95 percent drop in the state’s Little Brown Bat population.
“If we look at this in human terms, it would be like the flu of 1918,” says Katie Gillies, a biologist with BCI, which is currently researching various biocontrols for the fungus in an attempt to prevent the disease by getting in front of its transmission process. “I think what we’ll see in the coming years is—because of this change in the bat community—a huge increase in night insects. So farmers will have to respond to that by, unfortunately, increasing the use of dangerous pesticides … and pass that cost along to the American consumer.
“It’s unprecedented, it’s devastating and we’re going to see the additional negative consequences very soon.”
So far, WNS has not spread to attic and roof-dwelling urban bats. According to BCI and Gary Stolz, a refuge manager at Philadelphia’s John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, WNS has not been detected in Philadelphia. But the impact WNS has had on American bat populations has already been devastating. While it may take years for humans to experience any direct consequences, it’s only a matter of time.
The bats’ demise has caught the attention of some local artists, who have organized a benefit show at South Philadelphia’s Grindcore House to help projects aiming to prevent, control and research WNS. Empty Night Skies, which runs through June 13, features 69 bat-inspired pieces (the prices range from $5 to $300) made by more than 60 artists. The majority are local, though artists from five other states, and from Australia and Indonesia, submitted work. And all proceeds will help BCI’s war against WNS.
Two of the benefit organizers, Michael Bukowski and Jeanne D’Angelo, first learned about WNS when they came across a bat watcher’s guide book, from which they learned that Pennsylvania’s Canoe Creek State Park was one of the best places to observe the nighttime mammals. There is an abandoned church there, the book claimed, that housed a colony of more than 3,000 bats. But when Bukowski and D’Angelo contacted the park with hopes of arranging a visit, a ranger informed them that, due to WNS, only about 200 bats remained. Alarmed by the discovery, they did some more research, and came across a documentary film called The Race To Save Pennsylvania’s Bats . (The film will screen at Grindcore House on June 5.) They learned that the larger bat population at Canoe Creek State Park was estimated to be 35,000 in 2008, and that experts studying the area had since determined only 2,000 to 3,000 of those bats were predicted to survive. In the film, Greg Turner of the Pennsylvania Game Commission, claims that WNS has already killed 98 percent of Pennsylvania’s cave bats.
Bukowski and D’Angelo became members of BCI and began thinking of ways they could contribute to the bats’ cause. Along with local artist Ryann Casey, who had helped organize art benefits for the ocean conservation organizations Oceana and Sea Shepherd, they developed the idea for Empty Night Skies.
“Jeanne and I are really into folklore, mythology, and horror movies, which often involve bats,” says Bukowski, an illustrator who has created album art and posters for punk bands like NOFX and Poison Idea. “Since bats inspire us so much, we wanted to do something for them.”
“Western culture has a negative image of bats,” adds D’Angelo, who contributed four paintings. “But that’s also why punk and metal music communities love them so much. Unfortunately, this sort of contributes to the stereotypes, and is detrimental to conservation efforts. It’s a double-edged sword, but this is a way for us to give something back to an animal we use a lot in our work, and that’s an important part of our lives.”
One of Bukowski’s vivid illustrations riffs on an Aztec legend in which Camazotz, the so-called Death Bat, engages in a multi-decapitation and reincarnation battle with the “Hero Twins.” While a beer-bellied Camazotz mockingly looms over the scene, one muscular brother blows his blowgun, and the other lifts his own chopped head from his shoulders.
Inspired by Eastern European folklore, in one of her pieces D’Angelo painted a giant skull perched in a graveyard with a bat—meant to represent the soul—soaring from the skull’s eye socket into the night.
With sculptures, screenprints, drawings, a bat-crowned pair of 3-D glasses by David Cook called “Bat Goggles” and two bat action-figure pieces by Alan Brown called “Battle Bats,” the exhibit is incredibly diverse. About 50 pieces sold on the opening night, and the benefit has already raised thousands of dollars for BCI. “It’s the most successful exhibit we’ve had so far,” says Grindcore House co-owner Mike Barone. “Hopefully, we’ve all helped a significant number of people grasp the magnitude of the disease and its impact.”
Empty Night Skies runs through June 13 at Grindcore House. 1515 S. Fourth St. 215.839.3333. grindcorehouse.com
Wind farms seem to be messing with nature: One unintended consequence of the installation of wind turbines has been a massive increase in bat deaths. Bats seem to be drawn to them, and scientists can’t figure out why. But they do know that the rapid decline in our bat population—which is crucial to general insect control—is really bad news.
PW's Music Issue 2014