By Paula Rodriguez de la Vega,
Okanagan Community Bat Program Coordinator
From the earliest of times, humankind has been intrigued and mystified by bats. Creatures that fly like birds but have fur instead of feathers, can see and hunt efficiently at night, and seem to mysteriously disappear during the day. Some can suck blood, others have wingspans as long as an adult's arms stretched out. No wonder they are shrouded by myths and feared by many.
Here in the Okanagan, though, bats are quite small, harmless, and incredibly important components of our healthy ecosystems. All of the bat species that live in the Okanagan are huge consumers of many different groups of insects and arachnids. No, we don't have vampire bats in Canada. And no, we don't have any fruit-eating bats in Canada either. Our bats will, however, devour moths, beetles, leafhoppers, and other flying insects that are considered pests to the agricultural and forestry industries. In a lab setting, one Little Brown Myotis ate 600 mosquitoes in an hour!
Little is known about bat behaviour in winter, but research is underway. Most local bats hibernate in caves, mines, or rock crevices in the hills nearby. Their body temperatures lower, their heart rates slow, and their metabolism drops dramatically. Some, like the hoary bat, do migrate south to warmer climates to remain relatively active.
Winter hibernation sites represent a critical habitat type for bats. Not only are bats vulnerable to predation in hibernacula because they are in a torpid, inert state, but bats roused from this state use up valuable fat reserves. Relatively few bat hibernacula are known in BC and sites that are known have relatively few bats hibernating in them. The fact that the majority of hibernacula are unknown increases the risk of loss of populations or individuals due to development activities or other human disturbance. Researchers are currently studying winter bat activity and have found that some bat species are active in winter in BC including Big Brown bats, Yuma Myotis, Townsend's Big-eared bats, Silver-haired bats, and California Myotis. Bats may be active in winter to forage on insects that hibernate in mines, to mate, to drink water, or to stretch and use their muscles.
In the Okanagan, we have at least 14 species of bats, half of which are considered "at risk" due to a variety of factors including habitat loss, wind turbines, restricted distribution, and susceptibility to white nose syndrome (WNS). White nose syndrome is a deadly disease caused by an introduced fungus that is decimating bat populations. It was first detected in 2006 in New York State. More than six million bats have died and mortality rates at affected sites are 80-100% in eastern North America. Many North American bat species that hibernate are thought to be at risk, with extinctions of some species likely. Although devastating for bats, WNS does not affect humans.
||Little brown bat displaying WNS
Photo by Marvin Moriarty, US Fish & Wildlife Service
Unfortunately, WNS was confirmed in Washington State in 2016. This is very worrisome for the health of bat populations in British Columbia. The Okanagan Community Bat Program, in coordination with the BC government, has been actively collecting dead bats that local residents report. Fortunately, all of the 30 dead bats submitted between November 2016 and May 2017 tested negative for WNS. None were submitted thereafter, since in summer it is very difficult to detect the fungal spores that cause WNS.
The Okanagan Community Bat Program would like to ask residents for their continued support this winter.
- Bats flying during winter (an unusual sighting when bats are hibernating). Reports of winter bat activity will help focus research, monitoring and protection efforts.
- Dead bats (so they can be tested for WNS). Never touch a dead bat with your bare hands. Please note that if you or your pet has been in direct contact with a bat you will need further information regarding the risk of rabies to you and your pet.
- Roosting bats in early spring. If you have a bat box or bat roost, and you see bats in March, April and May of 2018, we would like to collect their fresh bat guano (droppings). WNS can be detected in the guano of bats that have recently emerged from hibernation.
Please report bats to the Okanagan Community Bat Program (toll free 1-855-922-2287 ext. 13 or
). For more information, go to
Currently there are no treatments for WNS. However, mitigating other threats to bat populations and preserving and restoring bat habitat may provide bat populations with the resilience to rebound. For more information on how to help bats, visit
The Okanagan Community Bat Program is part of a BC wide network and is supported by the Government of Canada, BC Government, the Habitat Conservation Foundation, and the
BC Conservation Foundation.