Why in the World Would I Want to Attract Bats to My Backyard?

Matt Hickman clues us in on some free, eco-friendly mosquito control.

Q: Last week, I was visiting the home of a new friend that I met in Bikram yoga class ... I know, it’s shocking that anyone would want to befriend a stranger while they’re simultaneously grunting, sweating and lifting their legs over their head. Anyways, we were out on her back porch having tea when I noticed a pole with a peculiar looking birdhouse mounted on top. I asked her about it and she explained it wasn’t a birdhouse but a bat house. Not wanting to seem unworldly to my new friend, I choked back a gasp, shook my head in agreement and proclaimed, “Oh, of course!”

The truth is, I have no idea why she’d want to attract bats to her backyard. I’m not scared of them and understand that they aren’t going to attack me, try to nest in my hair or lunge for my throat in an attempt to suck my blood, but I’ve never considered setting up a condo for a colony of the critters in close proximity to my home. I figure there has to be a good reason someone would do this. Care to school me in backyard bat boarding so that if she ever brings up the topic I can at least seem somewhat non-horrified? Should I be investing in a bat house?


— Lucy, Salem, N.H.

Hey Lucy,

Rest assured, your non-knowledge of bat houses and chiroptophobic reaction isn’t unusual. I’m all for bats since they are extremely beneficial, gentle and misunderstood animals ... as long as they stay a good distance away from me. Seriously, the things give me the heebie-jeebies.

Chances are your Bikram buddy is fostering bats as a means of natural insect control. Either that or she’s a demonic vampiress. Kidding. Here’s the thing: A single little brown bat, which is probably the species that’s taken up residence in your friend’s backyard, can eat up to 1,000 of the real blood-suckers, mosquitoes (they also dine on gnats, moths, beetles and wasps), in an hour. Not too shabby, eh? A much better—not to mention, cheaper—alternative to toxic sprays, energy-sucking zappers and other environmentally unfriendly pest-control methods as long as you don’t mind the fact that you’ve got a few bats loose in the backyard. Plus, fruit-eating bats are excellent pollinators and are crucial in helping ravaged rainforests sprout back to life via seed dispersion. A world without bats would be a rather difficult one: Agriculture would suffer, the rainforests would fail to regrow and you’d probably be eaten alive by mosquitoes.

Feeling more sympathetic than spooked out? Then, I’d perhaps consider installing a bat house of your own to not only give bats a place to crash during the day after a long night of bug eating but also to help with bat conservation efforts in general. White-nose syndrome, a fungal infection that causes bats to emerge prematurely from hibernation and then freeze or starve to death, is a serious threat to bat populations in your home turf, the northeast United States. Biologists call the syndrome “the most precipitous wildlife decline in the past century in North America.” By providing a bat house, you’ll be helping to keep bats safe, healthy and well-fed during the summer months—it won’t guarantee their survival against the epidemic but it certainly won’t hurt.

Setting up a bat house isn’t as easy as plopping a funky designer birdhouse down in your backyard. There’s a science to it that involves specific locations, heights, temperatures, etc. I recommend checking out the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department’s Homeowners and Bats page or Bat Conservation International’s extensive bat house installation section for advice. If you’re DIY-oriented you can build your own bat house; otherwise, the Backyard Bird Co. and the Bird Shed offer a decent selection of BCI-approved bat houses. If it makes you feel more at ease, invest in a Belfry Bat Detector so you’ll know when bats are in the house, so to speak.

So there you go, Lucy, some background material that both portrays bats in a non-sinister light and that gives you something to chitchat about with your yoga pal the next time she invites you over for tea. By the way, is that bat house over there two or three chambers? Want to really impress her? Take over a bat detector for a little echolocation excitement or bring up your newfound love of guano-based fertilizing techniques. Can’t go wrong with that. Good luck.

— Matt