Why spotting a bat on P.E.I., is reason to be excited, not afraid

After a colder-than-usual spring, bats are beginning to appear on P.E.I. after their winter hibernation. And that's a welcome sight, especially on the Island.

Wildlife officials keeping track of bat population in hopes it is rebounding

There is no reason to fear this little bat, says Tessa McBurney. (Jordie Segers)

After a colder-than-usual spring, bats are beginning to appear on P.E.I. after their winter hibernation.

That's a good thing, says Tessa McBurney of the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative in Charlottetown.

"Bats are very important on the Island, particularly because they're great for agricultural pest control," McBurney said.

"They eat a lot of moth species, midges, beetles — all kinds of things that are common agricultural pest on the Island, things that affect apple crops, potatoes, pretty much anything.

"They eat a lot of mosquitoes, as well, so that's just nice if you want to sit out in the summer."

White-nose syndrome

But there aren't as many bats on the Island as there used to be.

White-nose syndrome, a disease that affects hibernating bats, has decimated the bat population since it was first detected on P.E.I. in 2013. The following year, two bat species native to P.E.I. were listed as endangered under the federal Species-at-Risk-Act.

Tessa McBurney, Atlantic bat conservation project technician with the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative, will be conducting acoustic monitoring in the next few weeks to help determine bat activity on the Island. (Mike Needham)

Wildlife officials are trying to get a handle on just how many bats are left in the province. That's why they're encouraging Islanders to call the bat hotline when they see one, McBurney said.

I think there are lot of old wives' tales surrounding bats that make people afraid.— Tessa McBurney

"If you do that, we could do a colony count, so go and actually count the bats, and that would give us a better idea of how many bats we have remaining on the Island."

In June, the wildlife co-operative counted 49 bats over three roost sites. Before white-nose syndrome, McBurney estimates those colonies had hundreds of bats.

Bats eat 'large amount of insects'

McBurney said there is no research to suggest the decline in bats has affected P.E.I. crops, but it stands to reason there are likely more insects around and as a result, perhaps a heavier reliance on pesticides to get rid of them.

"Just the fact that bats do eat such a large amount of insects per night — some bats can eat half their body weight or more in insects a night — and the fact that we've lost so many bats, obviously the insects don't have the same number of predators that they had before."

The little brown myotis, one of the bats native to P.E.I., went on the endangered list in 2014. (Jordi Segers)

It's possible some bats have developed a natural immunity to white-nose syndrome, but McBurney said because bats generally only have one pup a year, it will likely take a long time for the bat population to rebound. 

In the coming weeks, the wildlife co-operative — as well as some watershed groups and officials at P.E.I. National Park — will be doing acoustic monitoring at locations around the Island. This won't determine the number of bats on the Island, McBurney said, but it will help gauge "bat activity" on the Island relative to previous years.

Bat hotline

In the meantime, Islanders can help by putting up bat houses — high up, painted black, and facing south or east — planting light-coloured flowers that attract moths for bats to feed on, and by calling the hotline at 1-833-434-BATS when they spot a bat.

And if you do see one of the nocturnal creatures, there is no reason to fear it, McBurney said. Bats won't get caught in your hair and no, they won't suck your blood.

"I think there are lot of old wives' tales surrounding bats that make people afraid," she said.

"They do a lot of good for us. They just come out at night and eat all our mosquitoes while we're sleeping and then they go to sleep when we get up. So as long as you're not handling them and that type of thing, you're perfectly safe."

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About the Author

Shane Ross is a former newspaper and TV journalist in Halifax, Ottawa and Charlottetown. He joined CBC P.E.I.'s web team in 2016.