We should be buzzing about the bees … and bats

No, that’s not a typo; you read correctly. It is the bats and the bees, not the birds and the bees. Let’s first talk about the bats. Here I rely upon the excellent article on bats by Rodrigo Medelin, Don Melnick and Mary Pearl recently in the New York Times.

White nose disease, wind turbines, human shortsightedness and greed is killing off great numbers of bats. So what? You might say. Well, for starters a single brown bat eats 1000 mosquitoes in an hour. That’s a helluva lot more mosquitoes to bite us poor humans and infect us with diseases.

White nose disease has decimated populations of hibernating, cave-dwelling bats in America. Bats are highly susceptible to the cold-loving fungus that appears in winter on bats’ noses and other body parts during hibernation, irritating the bats and keeping them awake at a time when there is no food. They end up burning up precious energy and just plain starve to death.

Whether these bats will recover or go extinct is unclear. Meanwhile, white-nose disease continues to spread rapidly. Because of the exceptionally cold winter this year, it has moved into Michigan and Wisconsin. It is now confirmed in 23 states and five Canadian provinces.

Tree-dwelling bats, since they don’t hibernate in caves, are not affected.

Wind turbines nationwide, however, according to a recent study in the journal BioScience, are estimated to kill between 600,000 and 900,000 of these bats a year. And these bats also protect agriculture; they eat rootworms and protect crops.

Fortunately, we can reduce the mortality caused by wind farms, which are often located on windy routes favored by migratory bats. Wind turbines usually automatically switch on at wind speeds of about 8 to 9 miles per hour, speeds at which insects and bats are active. But if, during times of peak bat activity, energy companies would recalibrate their turbines to start at a wind speed of about 11 miles per hour, which is too windy for insects and bats to fly, turbine-related deaths could be reduced, according to a recent study, by 44 to 93 percent.

And now, about those bees. Bee Colony Collapse Disorder has troubled beekeepers since 2006. In a recent study in the Bulletin of Insectology, scientists from Harvard University revealed that exposure to the most widely used insecticides were responsible for the deaths of half of the bee colonies studied.

Evidently, insecticides cause the bees to up and abandon their hives in winter and die. Honey-bee colonies that have collapsed have a complete absence of adult bees, with few or no dead bees in or around the colonies. Cold winters seem to intensify the effects of insecticides on the bees. But when it comes to why the insecticides are causing the bees to leave their hives and die, the research is still unclear.

But why all this buzz about bees? Are we just afraid of losing the honey they give us? It’s much more complicated. Honeybees don’t just produce honey; they pollinate apples, peaches, citrus fruit and cherries. Without this pollination the blueberries, avocados, asparagus and melon crops won’t bear fruit. Without honeybees, the food chain will be broken. Without them, our lives and diets will change drastically. It would be a catastrophe for the food industry and not only in the United States. For whatever is killing honeybees like bird flu, global warming, or nuclear fallout it knows none of those man-made national borders, which we humans make so sacrosanct.

All over the world bee colonies are dying, and if we lose the bees, as Albert Einstein wrote, “no more pollination, no more plants, no more plants, no more animals, no more mankind.” Einstein was a genius squared, but perhaps he was exaggerating. Perhaps, and perhaps not?

There is a spiritual message here. We are intimately connected to the earth. The environment is not apart from us; we are part of the environment. As the Unitarians teach in their principles, we should respect “the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part”.

We all know how the birds and the bees are special, but we better have bats in our belfries and bees in our bonnets. If we don’t, the whole human race could perish.

Retired from the administration at State University of New York at Fredonia, Daniel O’Rourke lives in Cassadaga. His columns once appeared regularly in The OBSERVER, Dunkirk. A grandfather, Dan is a married Catholic priest. His book, “The Living Spirit” is a collection of his previous columns. To read about that book or send comments on this column visit his website