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Planet Earth

Bats Worth Billions to Agriculture—But They’re Dying Fast

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What's the News: Bats are an economic boon worth approximately $23 billion per year, and possibly up to $54 billion, to U.S. agriculture, a study in today's issue of Science estimates. Their voracious appetite for insects---a colony of 150 brown bats eats about 1.3 million pesky, crop-chomping bugs each year---means that bats function as effective, and free, natural pesticides. How the Heck:

  • previous study found that bats saved farmers an average of $74 an acre in pesticides (ranging from $12 to $174 an acre), across eight cotton-growing counties in southeastern Texas.

  • Using that figure as a jumping-off point, the researchers extrapolated how much the disappearance of bats across the nation would cost per year. They came up with the yearly cost of $3.7 billion to $54 billion, putting their own estimate at $22.9 billion.

  • That estimate, they point out, just includes money saved purchasing pesticides; it doesn't take into account secondary costs, like the impact of pesticides on the environment.

What's the Context:

  • Unfortunately, bats are dying at an alarming rate. The mysterious, as-yet-incurable white-nose syndrome has killed over a million bats in the U.S. and Canada since 2006.

  • Nor is white-nose syndrome all bats are up against: Wind turbines can kill them two different ways.

The Future Holds:

  • It's not looking good for the bats. White nose syndrome may drive some New England species to extinction within 15 years, and the disease is still spreading.

  • Nor is there much money going into the hunt for a cure: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service spent only $2.4 million studying white-nose syndrome last year---about a tenth of a percent of the low-end estimate of bats' economic value---and research budgets for the disease are likely to shrink even further, reports Brandon Kiem at Wired Science.

Reference: Justin G. Boyles, Paul M. Cryan, Gary F. McCracken, and Thomas H. Kunz. "Economic Importance of Bats in Agriculture." Science, April 1, 2011. DOI: 10.1126/science.1201366.

Image: Flickr / longhorndave

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