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Let's enlist bats to go after mosquitoes

"Mosquito fish," cousins to guppies, are often used to control mosquito populations. Photo Credit: AP, 2009

With warm weather, Long Island mosquito populations will soon be booming. Bug spray, insecticides and other toxins will start selling rapidly as the numbers of biting mosquitoes increase. But what if the solution to this problem could be found in your backyard?

Well, it just might be.


Commonly known as "America's most feared animal," bats are not to be feared. They are paramount to Long Island's ecosystem: They feed on small insects, including mosquitoes, whose populations have been increasing year after year.

In 2010, Long Island lost 90 percent of its bats to the increasing use of pesticides and white nose syndrome, a fungus that grows on the flying mammals. The fungus eats away at skin tissue as bats hibernate. It can lead to bats waking up earlier and more frequently from hibernation in winter months. Because they are unable to find food in the cold months, they end up starving to death before spring.

Here's why it's crucial that Long Island bat populations bounce back.


Stop the spread of disease

As the mosquito population rises, so does the risk for the spread of diseases, including West Nile virus. There were 186 cases of mosquito infections in Suffolk County last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nassau County recorded 107 cases, and Queens had 200. New York State as a whole had 740 cases of mosquito infections last summer. As for human cases of West Nile, New York State saw 19 cases, including three in Queens, four in Nassau, and one in Suffolk.


Reduce use of insecticides

In July 2014, Suffolk included areas of Fire Island in its annual effort to control populations of adult mosquitoes. It used Anvil, an insecticide that contains sumithrin and piperonyl butoxide, which have been found to have low toxicity to humans and mammals.

No pesticide is 100 percent safe. Although the health risks are relatively low -- for example, eye and skin irritations -- in large dosages Anvil can have long-term effects. It can increase the chance of tumor growth in breast and prostate cancer. It may also affect the central nervous system, causing neurological problems in young children. Anvil also has been proven to kill fish populations after it was sprayed over ponds and other small bodies of water.

A more eco-friendly alternative would be to install bat houses.


Prevent extinction

Boston University researchers have predicted that New York bat populations would go extinct within the next 20 years, according to published reports. Because Long Island's bat populations are low, providing homes for them would promote population growth.That would reduce the amount of biting mosquitoes that often frustrate us as we try to enjoy time outdoors.

The little brown bat, Myotis lucifugus, is one of the most common bat species on Long Island. It can consume about half of its body weight in insects on one night -- or about 1,000 mosquitoes an hour. Bats are often called the most effective insect fighters because they efficiently lower insect populations in a natural way, rather than through insecticides.

Many fear bats as a result of how they have been portrayed in popular culture, or more seriously because of concerns over rabies. But most bats don't have rabies, according to the CDC. Among bats tested for rabies, only 6 percent were infected, the federal agency found.

Installing bat houses and educating people about the role of bats in our ecosystem will help us understand why growing this population is vital.


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