Flying Mammals, Insect Warrior, Friend

bat pic 1

The light is turning shades of blue and purple as the sun drops below the horizon. The air is cooling from a warm summer day.  Crickets are beginning their night time singing, and through the sky comes the faint whirring of bats. Swooping and gliding through the air, indulging in an early evening snack. Some of my fondest memories growing up in Wisconsin start on nights like this. Watching the bats and reveling in the idea that there are finally warriors to take on the thick clouds of mosquitos that crowd the Wisconsin sky. I loved anything that would eat bugs; mosquitos are the Wisconsin state bird, after all. I was always amazed at the way bats took to the sky; dropping out of slumber in an almost synchronized fashion, swooping gracefully and clearing the pests surrounding me.

I knew early on the benefit of the bats regarding personal pest control but had yet to learn all the ways in which bats help humankind. Yes it is wonderful to have a night time warrior friend to clear the bugs from around our heads, but what else do they accomplish? It is thought that these flying mammals contribute over 3 billion dollars annually to pest control for farmers all across the United States. They clear cropland in a frenzy of feeding, each bat consuming up to or more than their body weight in pesky bugs each night. This fundamental trait of bats reduces the amount of chemical pesticides used on cropland, creating a feedback loop that saves farmers money, keeps pesticides out of watersheds, and in turn lowers health and food costs to customers (us). Bats unintentionally help farmers in another major way — pollinating fruit. Do you enjoy a margarita or tequila from time to time? Well you can thank bats; without night time pollination agave would never produce the fruits needed for that icy cocktail. Don’t imbibe alcohol? How about eating mangos, bananas or avocados?  Bats to the rescue.  Bats are the only natural pollinator for these fruits. When fruit bats feed on night flowers, spreading pollen from plant to plant, they also clear the flower of any parasites that may harm it in the future. Double whammy!

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Small bat pollinating agave

Bats play another crucial role in plant life and biodiversity as the world’s most prolific seed transmitters. Bats regenerate forests around the world by dispersing seeds and spreading guano accounting for nearly 95% of the first plants that sprout out of a new forest floor. Having few predators, they often fly long distances at night covering large open spaces. All the while spreading some of the most nutritious feces of any living species; Johnny Appleseed has nothing on bats. So to reflect; bats fertilize and distribute seeds in those hard to reach places, bats pollinate difficult species of plants, bats are living breathing insecticide keeping in check those destructive and disease spreading insects. And these are just the actions that benefit growth. But what else are bats capable of?

Bats as bomber pilots? Sure, why not. Shortly after the attack at Pearl Harbor a dental surgeon named Dr. Lytle S. Adams came up with one crazy idea — utilize bats to plant and distribute hundreds of small incendiary bombs throughout Japan. Bats have an amazing ability to carry a large load in comparison to their size. Remember they eat their weight or more in bugs each and every night. Some species can carry almost three times their weight. Dr. Adams joined with thousands of other concerned Americans and sent his bat plan to the American Military and the top brass liked it. Once President Roosevelt signed off on the idea, Dr. Adams was directed to Army Chemical Warfare Service (CWS) along with several naturalist from the University of California who worked together to implement it. After an exhaustive search they realized that Mexican free-tailed bats had all the right stuff; they were numerous and powerful enough to carry the load, and they were easy to catch. The idea was simple; force the bats into hibernation, attach a clip from the small incendiary to the chest of the bats, put the bats into a cardboard contraption, fly them in a B-52 bomber releasing them at 5000ft., cardboard contraption breaks open, bats come out of hibernation in time while freefalling to roost under buildings eaves, then they would naturally chew off the clip holding the mini bombs. Once the clip was loose the bomb’s fuse would ignite and BOOM — off go hundreds of bombs strewn throughout the country in no particular order, creating chaos. Whew, that made me tired just typing it, but simple enough for the magical bats, right? Alas all did not go as planned. They had some trouble with the timing of hibernation; first they were coming out too late and splat, then they came out too early and created chaos at the test site. Then a careless act by a scientist released a number of bats with miniature incendiary devices attached, causing a hanger to be bombed and a general’s car to be lit aflame. Needless to say the 2 million dollar project was scrapped for a much more promising one, the Atomic Bomb.

Alright, so bats are amazing little flying mammals and there are a lot of bat species around the world, over 1,300 in fact. So they will be with us for a very long time, fulfilling their silent duty for centuries to come. Wrong. Or possibly wrong; it is our turn to help the bats. Some think that the Mexican free-tailed bat, those little bombers, may be dying off due to insecticide. Oh the irony. Then there is global climate change, an issue facing all living creatures in their own way, some being affected in ways that no one could have predicted. The bats are one such mammal. Humans have looked to alternative energy to slow the release of greenhouse gasses, one cause of global climate change. One piece of the greenhouse gas solution is wind farms, yet they are directly affecting bats. During bats migratory times in the fall, they seem to be attracted to the blades of wind turbines. Bats not only get caught in the blades themselves but as they come near to them the wind pressure change can crush their delicate little bodies in mid-air, stopping their hearts. Scientist have yet to figure out why they are more apt to be attracted to the turbines in the fall and have been working with the owners of wind farms. Together they have found that by furloughing the turbines a few hours around dusk for the month and a half that bats migrate, they can reduce the number of fatalities drastically. Unfortunately these are not the direst issues facing North American bats.

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Map showing the spread of WNS

A more mystifying issue at hand is the rapid proliferation of a psychrophilic (cold loving) fungus called Pseudogymnoascus Destructans or White Nose Syndrome (WNS). WNS is thought to have come from Europe and East Asia, first appearing in the Northeast during the winter of 2006-2007. WNS has now spread throughout the east and in the last two years has been found in small pockets of Washington State. At this point scientist believe that over 5 million bats have succumbed to WNS. Bats that live in the colder regions tend to hibernate in humid cooler dwellings, a perfect environment for the fungus to survive. It can be spread by close contact of bats but can also live in the soil surrounding a cave. Bats are very social critters, huddling together during hibernation, especially the females. These attributes cause near-perfect conditions for a pandemic. WNS does not directly kill bats but can spread quickly, causing dehydration and an uncomfortable annoyance, waking the bats up from hibernation. Rising earlier than they should, the affected bats wander around disoriented and burn off crucial reserves needed to make it through the long hibernation. Unable to find food and relief from WNS, they become weaker and weaker until they perish. The fungus can also attack the delicate wing membranes of bats causing debilitating tears. It is thought that over 90%of the little brown bats in the North East Coast have died due to White Nose Syndrome in the last decade. And that is no good.

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A small brown bat inflicted with WNS

Scientists have yet to find a reliable way of combating WNS, but there have been several attempts in which they are slowing the disease’s progression. A plant that the bats have been helping throughout evolution may be the key to saving bats in the future. A group of scientist had been testing a natural bacterium, R. Rhodochrous, to see if they could elongate the shelf life of bananas for shipping. They planned on doing this by inhibiting fungal growth and thus extending ripening times. A grad student working on the banana project saw photos of the spread of WNS and had a winning idea: Try the bacteria on bats as well. The bacteria have been found in preliminary trials to feed off of the fungus, causing no negative effects on the bats themselves. They are now moving onto the next batch of studies to make sure that the bacteria will have no known side effects on the cave environs in which the bats live. Fingers crossed, little buddies!

At this point you may be asking yourself, what can I do? Similar to all ecological disasters popping up every day, this seems like a problem too big for each of us individually to make a difference. Oh but we can help our little bat friends. Bat detective is a website dedicated to an interesting world-wide citizen science project. They are asking people to join in by learning the different calls that bats make in your area. Then you can help scientist track bats around the world. Another great online resource is Bat Conservation International. The website is full of information. On it you can find other citizen science projects, places and safe ways to view bats, and plans on how to make bat houses as well as successfully getting bats to roost. Building and caring for a bat house is a tangible and meaningful way to help the local bat populations and helps keep them out of your attic. They can be the bug warriors in your backyard, create hours of entertainment, and be a wonderful learning tool for young and old alike. Or just learn about bats and teach others. Together we can build a band of bat warriors.

Humans and bats are intricately intertwined. Their future will directly affect ours just as their past has molded our present. Phil Richardson in Bats speaks to the evolution of fruit bats, which “branched off from primates, the group that contains monkeys, apes and humans. It is possible, therefore, that these bats are distantly related to us.”

 

Resources:

New to the Fontana system is a great video resource called Kanopy. With a library card you can access this video library of over 30,000 titles. Try Bats in the search bar and see what you can find!

Books in Fontana Regional Library on bats:

Bats of the United States and Canada

Bats by Phil Richardson

Books on the continuing extinction crisis we face:

The Sixth Extinction; an unnatural history by Elizabeth Kolbert

The Ends of the World; volcanic apocalypses, lethal oceans, and our quest to understand Earth’s past extinctions by Peter Brannen

Each of the blue links in this blog leads to another great online resource for learning all that you can about bats. It’s our turn to lend them a helping hand.

Bibliography:

Amos, Amy Mathews. “Bat Killings by Wind Energy Turbines Continue.” Scientific American, 7 June 2016, www.scientificamerican.com/article/bat-killings-by-wind-energy-turbines-continue/.

Jemison, Micaela. “Not Just the Birds and Bees – 6 Fast Facts About Pollinating Bats.” The National Wildlife Federation Blog, National Wildlife Federation, 18 June 2014, blog.nwf.org/2014/06/not-just-the-birds-and-bees-6-fast-facts-about-pollinating-bats/.

Mart Miller Special to the Reformer. “Researchers May Have Found Solution to White-Nose   Syndrome That’s Killing Bats.” The Brattleboro Reformer, Brattleboro Reformer, 1 Nov. 2016, www.reformer.com/stories/researchers-may-have-found-solution-to-white-nose-syndrome-thats-killing-bats,428973

Richardson, Phil. Bats. Firefly Books, 2011.

It Gets Better

September can mean a lot of different things to different people: fall is here and the hills will be lit afire with changing leaves, the temperature outside cools to a comfortable level, kiddos go back to school, university is in session, life takes on a slower more regular schedule. September is also suicide awareness month. I am what people in the industry (yes there is a suicide industry) call a suicide loss survivor. I had never quite put label to my reality until I started researching for this post, but there it is: I am a loss survivor. Nearly ten years ago I split up with a man whom I had been with for several years. He had battled with depression and suicidal thoughts for the majority of his life. Soon after our split he decided to assert his last act of control and committed suicide. Needless to say, my world was rocked. Not only had I been learning to live without my partner, but all of a sudden I had to learn to live with all of the questions, guilt, and pain of what he had decided. It was suddenly and sharply real that I would never see or hear him again. Though we had not worked out as a couple, he was still the person at that time who knew me better than just about anyone else in my world, and he would no longer be in mine.

Most loss survivors go through the same feelings and emotions; disbelief, numbness, anger, guilt and a hole deep, deep down inside. When left behind after a suicide there are no answers, only speculation and that speculation is so deeply painful.  Loss survivors begin to question what they themselves have done wrong and it is common to hear of people close to the suicide victim taking their own lives not long after or being put on to suicide watch. I do not believe that many people with suicidal thoughts take this reality into consideration, especially when feelings of loneliness are intertwined in the person’s psyche. Susan Rose Blauner hits on this fact when she writes in her wonderful work on mental health and suicide survival, How I Stayed Alive When My Brain was Trying to Kill Me, “I wonder if they ever consider the fact that they are choosing to kill someone while wounding many others”.  I had never quite thought of Mark’s suicide in those terms but it rings true still today. Suicide is a violent act, and those who care for the person are being caught in the crossfire. Though they may not have a physical ailment, it can be mentally debilitating. One thing that loss survivors or suicide bystanders need to remember during the time of hurt, blame and loss is that everyone who attempts or succeeds at suicide is doing so for very personal reasons. This is their last act of control in a world that has spun out, it is their release of the pain and anguish that they have been dealing with, it is their decision. Blauner writes, “I think that when you don’t know what to do with your pain and are feeling unloved, suicide seems like a better choice than life.”  It is this escape from pain that drives most suicidal tendencies. It’s not that those who are suicidal don’t want to live; it’s just that they can’t deal with the pain any longer.

Fortunately there are many different resources available for people who need help, though we can as a society do much better in dealing with mental health crises. Whether you are feeling at the end of the line and ready to leave it all or are a suicide loss survivor here to pick up the shattered pieces left behind, know that there is help. The key is that you will have to want to get help and crucially, feel that you deserve help. Nationally there is the suicide helpline. It runs 7 days a week 24 hours a day and can be reached by phone at 1-800-273-8255 (talk)or online https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ .

It doesn’t matter what part you have to play in a mental health crisis, the people on the hotline are there to help.  Whether you are a concerned friend or family member, a suicide loss survivor or someone on the brink, they can lead you in the right direction off the edge. There are also several other web pages that have been started by suicide survivors that are a great resource for all involved to see that you are far from alone in what you find yourselves faced with: http://www.itgetsbetter.org is one of the more famous, started by Dan Savage (of the Savage Love column and podcast) and his partner as a response to the shockingly high rates of suicides amongst LGBTQ teenagers. It has resources and many different videos of people discussing their life and how at one point it all felt hopeless but that if you can hang on it will get better. Another  http://www.dbsalliance.org/site/PageServer?pagename=urgent_crisis_suicide_prevention

is a page put out by the depression and bipolar alliance which is a little more scholarly in appearance and full of information. The last online source that I have for you (and please be aware that there are many many more available and I just personally found these to be comprehensive and useful) is http://www.lostallhope.com/ .  Lost All Hope is a web page that was created by suicide survivors and is a sort of crowd sourced platform, on which people share their story and support each other. There are also plenty of references to books and other sources. I found the chat space of this page to be very eye opening and a great safe space to find those who have been through similar situations.  Unfortunately the suicide horror is one that is shared by many others.

Here at the Jackson County Public Library we have partnered with Vaya Health to offer a mental health screening kiosk that is private and easy to use. It is located on the second floor next to the young adult section. The same mental health tool is offered online at http://www.vayamindful.org/ .  Please use whichever one feels more comfortable. Vaya Health manages public funds for mental health, substance use disorder and intellectual or developmental disability services in twenty-three North Carolina counties, including Jackson, Macon, and Swain. I tried the kiosk myself and found it easy and private. They ask a couple of demographics items at the beginning which are used solely for statistics purposes — a name is never attached or personal information of any kind. I did look through the privacy statement as well and Vaya Health was very explicit in the fact that they do not gather personal information, or sell any information to a third party. The demographic stats are solely for informational purposes to help Vaya Health better serve the community. It also must be noted that the information that the mental health screening does offer is not to be a replacement of a medical diagnosis. One of the best options that the kiosk offers is that they have the numbers and people to connect you with immediately to get the help that you need. If you do not feel comfortable with either of those local options you can call the Vaya Health directory line where they will connect you with mental health resources in Western North Carolina, 1-800-849-6127. You can use that number for yourself or for someone that you are concerned about in your life.

Just remember that asking for help does not make you weak, it does not make you broken past the point of no return. On the contrary, asking for help is one of the hardest things that we humans can do. I was lucky to have a large and loving support system, and for months I thought that I had myself under control. I am after all a Taurus and like a bull it’s hard for me to seek help of the personal kind. Then one day it just hit me. I was past the point of denial, of numb disregard.  I felt simply broken, lost. I didn’t know where to turn and I thought that I would never be able to let the pain leave. I believed in a way that I deserved to live with it. I could no longer stand it. A friend referred me to a lovely woman who was able to take me on at a sliding scale after I told her my circumstance. She was able to change my life and the trajectory that I was on. I never thought that I would benefit from such an arrangement and neither had Mark —  that is exactly why he never got help. I chose not to follow his footsteps.

Here are several books available in the Fontana Regional Library System:

How I stayed alive when my brain was trying to kill me by Blaunder, Susan

Why suicide?: answers to 200 of the most frequently asked questions about suicide, attempted suicide, and assisted suicide by Eric Marcus

Manic: a Memoir by Terri Cheney

Cracked not Broken: surviving and thriving after a suicide attempt  by Kevin Hines