Fewer bats could mean more pesky bugs for SC

sfretwell@thestate.comMarch 11, 2013 

This image from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service shows a little brown bat with white-nose syndrome.

US FISH & WILDLIFE SERVICE

Bats that feed on South Carolina’s ample bug population are in peril — and that’s something everyone should pay attention to, federal and state wildlife managers say.

A disease that has killed more than 5 million North American bats showed up recently for the first time in the Upstate, raising concern that it could spread to other bats, a team of state and federal biologists said Monday.

The disease isn’t dangerous to humans, but if it begins killing off large numbers of bats, the insect population could rise.

Some of the bats at risk are believed to eat wasps, mosquitoes, moths and other insects in South Carolina, said Mary Bunch, a biologist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

Insect-eating bats potentially save farmers $3 billion annually in pest-control costs by gobbling up pesky insects, according to a S.C. Department of Natural Resources news release.

“We do know they are out there feeding on a lot of insects,’’ said Susan Loeb, a U.S. Forest Service bat researcher. “They play a very important role in our forests as well as our agricultural areas.’’

The disease is believed to affect only bats that hibernate during the winter, mostly in caves in the mountains of South Carolina and neighboring states, including North Carolina. But bats can travel substantial distances, so losing any species can affect a much wider area than the mountains.

Bats at risk include the big brown bat, the little brown bat, the eastern small-footed bat and the tri-colored bat.

The disease, white nose syndrome, was diagnosed in a dead bat found last month at Table Rock State Park in Pickens County.

White nose syndrome was first detected in New York in 2007 but spread quickly. Until last month, it had not been verified in South Carolina. The disease may have originated in Europe, said Jeremy Coleman, who studies the disease for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It has been found in 21 American states and five Canadian provinces.

Nationally, the deaths of just one type of bat — the little brown — means tons of insects have remained to roam the Earth. The 1 million little brown bats that died could have eaten up to 1,320 metric tons of insects in one year, according to state and federal officials.

“The news that white-nose syndrome has been confirmed in South Carolina is devastating for these very important mammals,” the DNR’s Bunch said. “We will continue to work closely with our partners to understand the spread of this deadly disease and to help minimize its impacts to affected bat species.”

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