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The economic value of caring about bats
by Matt Marusiak on April 3, 2011
Natural systems maintain the quality of life by providing vital services such as water purification, stormwater management, and pest control. But we often don’t notice or appreciate the benefits of natural systems until they are gone. This natural capital must be assessed and valued before it is too late. A recent study valued the pest control services of bats to be billions of dollars per year, just as a new disease is decimating the bat population.
Bats normally conjure images of vampires, horror movies, and night creatures. But bats are both beneficial and, in spite of their reputation, elegant. Trout anglers know this: on warm summer evenings during the mayfly hatch, as rising trout dimple the water and mayflies fly their last conjugal dance, bats flit back and forth feeding as acrobatically as any rising trout. Such an evening is often the high point of the season for a trout angler.
Evenings like that, however, soon may no longer occur. Since 2006, white-nose syndrome – a fungus that attacks bats during hibernation – has wiped out nearly 90% of the bat population in the northeast. Although international spelunkers are sometimes blamed for introducing and spreading the fungus, its origins remain a mystery. In a space of a few years, bat numbers have plummeted to near extinction
And this loss not only affects the experience of the trout angler. Bats eat a lot of bugs. A recent study found that a colony of big brown bats eats 1.3 million bugs a year. The study determined that the value of bats to agriculture for pest control range from $3.7 to $53 billion per year. Without bats, farmers will have to use more pesticides, which will raise the cost of food, and increase health and environmental impacts. Although most people may not notice the disappearance of bats, their loss could have a real effect on food supply.
With bats, it might be too late to do anything (although researchers are trying). But this phenomenon underscores the need to understand the natural world, value natural capital, and protect biodiversity. Our forebears considered the natural world sacred. In light of events like the bat die-off, such an attitude appears more and more wise.