Regardless, efforts are being made to improve guano mining. “There is some cases where we are trying to work with cave owners on guano mining,” said Waldien. “But, in general, there are areas we are just emerging into." Bracken Cave in Texas is home to the world’s largest Mexican free-tailed bat colony and is owned by BCI. All guano mining there has stopped. “Now BCI is trying to engage in guano mining companies,” said Waldien. “From those that are identifying caves and harvesting it to the wholesale and retail outlets, to develop a more bat-friendly approach to this.”
One way for bat guano to remain a renewable resource may be through purchasing it from reputable sources. “I would really discourage people from going on Craigslist and buying it there,” said Kocer. “At least if you’re going through [reputable] companies, they’ve been doing it, they’ve got caves. They’re probably not in the northeast.” One company who has been in the guano business for over 25 years is Sunleaves. “We purchase our guano by the container,” said Tony Bayt, distribution manager at Sunleaves, in an e-mail. “It's mined and screened in an ecologically-conscious manner by licensed mining companies and shipped to us in bulk.” Sunleaves receives their guano from all around the world. Due to proprietary issues, the cave locations are kept private. “Our supply chains have remained open and we've been in the position to fulfill our customers' needs,” said Bayt. And organic gardeners do need their share of guano. Granular forms of bat guano can be purchased in 125 pound and 375 pound, 55 gallon barrels, according to Bayt.
Other than the risk factors of inappropriate guano mining, bat guano alone may pose potential risks to miners or gardeners. One fungal pathogen bats are known to transmit is Histoplasma capsulatum, which causes histoplasmosis in humans, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). People get histoplasmosis from breathing in fungal spores and while some people may not get sick, other people may experience pneumonia-like effects. “All of our production clerks are respirator-certified to handle the guano,” said Bayt. “We have never had such an occurrence in our company history.”
Another way to get guano can be directly from local bats using sustainable and renewable harvesting techniques. “If you have your own colony, you’re not going to risk spreading anything to a new site because those bats are already there,” said Kocer. “The use of a bat house and your local bats for your fertilizing or garden is a brilliant idea and I think that’s what should be happening.”
O’ Tapong commune, located in Cambodia, has built bat habitats to attract local colonies to their rice fields. The illegal bat hunting in those areas have resulted in a decrease in local bats. Farmers began noticing a decline in their rice harvests along with an increase in insects which motivated some of them to start attracting local bat colonies, or bat farming, as they call it, according to the Community Based Natural Resource Management Learning Institute. “They’ve attracted enough bats that they’re able to harvest the guano beneath the trees and use it for local purposes,” said Waldien. “And sell it.” In O’ Tapong commune, 95 percent of the less than 16,000 people are farmers. In the United States, less than 1 percent of the 313,000,000 people are farmers, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “Now with that in mind,” said Waldien, “to my knowledge, there is no evidence of any place in the world that has a sustainable, renewable approach to guano mining.” And with stories like Dracula and Cujo, not many people will be getting over the fear of bats any time soon.
“I always encourage bat houses when people are interested in putting them up,” said Kocer. In areas of the northeast where bat populations have decreased due to WNS it is easier to attract bats into bat houses. Since they hibernate in caves and mines during the winter, they search for places to live in the summer when they are active and raising pups, according to Kocer. And as for neighbors? “I wouldn’t be concerned about my neighbor putting up a bat house,” said Kocer. “They’re not these rodent pests that are going to chew through things.” If anything, talking to the neighbor about putting up a bat house becomes an opportunity to educate them about the valuable resources bats provide. For people to get over their fear of bats, they must first get over any misconceptions they may be holding onto. For one, “they don’t really want to be in your house,” said Kocer. Also, “people think they’re like rodents and have lots of young every year, but that’s not the case. They’re very slow reproducing.”
Misconceptions About Bats
The two biggest misconceptions about bats may revolve around rabies and vampires. Simply put, most bats do not have rabies. If a bat did have rabies it would die fast. A dog, on the other hand, would live longer with rabies. (And perhaps torment its own family.) Fortunately, less than half of 1 percent of bats carry rabies, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS). And they only bite in self-defense. Vampire bats do not live in the United States or in Canada. Recent discoveries in science have even found vampire bat saliva beneficial in preventing heart attacks in humans because it can prevent blood from clotting, according to the USDA’s Forest Service (FS). Feel free to be free of fear.
“Every horror film we ever watched shows some sort of scene with bats flying in your face, or bats flying around making it eery,” said Kocer. “It’s difficult to get people to understand that bats really aren’t scary. They’re small little critters that are actually kind-of cute if you take a look at them and they’re not interested in sucking your blood.”
Maybe Stephen King’s next book will be about a self-sustaining farmer suffering from aspergers and his telepathic on-site bat colony. The community fears the bat colonies and hates the farmer for being an outcast. The community is plotting ways to kill the farmer and his bats so they can return the land to the community and make it “beautiful again”. Suddenly, gas runs dry, the economy collapses, and the community is faced with a bigger problem – starvation. But not the farmer.
As the starving community members prepare to risk everything for the farmer’s food, the self-sustained farmer is prepared to defend what’s his - at all costs. However, the telepathic bat colony has a different plan. They are going to save the farmer, his land and all surviving community members.
For more information on bats visit BCI’s website or WhiteNoseSyndrome.org. Or build a bat house.
Having raised chickens for several years I must admit that the ubiquitously written about chicken tractor puzzles me. I cannot say that I would never have one, but I will say that, after observing chicken behavior, I would not deem a chicken tractor a suitable environment for chickens. Not for long anyway. Chickens, given the space, like to take off on a low, long (15 to 20 feet perhaps) flight across the land. They like to climb up on trees, vines, ladders, chairs. They appear to appreciate a diversity of landscape, from shaded, shrubby areas, to standing under the sprinkler on a hot day. They dust bathe in one area for a few weeks, then switch to a new dust bathing area. They even rest on the chairs on my patio. Diversity of environment seems to give the chickens a wide range of experiences, and keeps them from resorting to anti-social behavior. And chickens are very social creatures.
Since my flock has range of my entire backyard, I’ve had a chance to watch them do things that they would not be able to do if kept in a confined space. I’m not talking battery cages here, I’m talking about those much-touted wire cages that fit over a garden bed. They promise to have the chickens cultivate, manure and weed the soil. Just move it every day and collect the eggs.
These tractors create an environment to which a chicken can adapt. Chickens can also adapt to being kept in battery cages. Perhaps my half-acre is just a large cage with trees, shrubs, vines, bugs and water. Given 20 acres they could very possibly exhibit behavior even more enlightening. My chickens have the option leave my back yard, with just a quick jump over the fence.
The choice I have made is to fence the chickens out of areas where I wish to grow my vegetables and tomatoes, rather than fence them into a small area where they cannot exercise the full expression of their behaviors.
My garden produces much in the way of food, including eggs, fruit, and vegetables. I have few weeds and insect pests, thanks to the chickens. I have a great appreciation for the behavior that my flock expresses, and would be unhappy to put them in a cage that fits just—so over—a garden row.
Chickens are useful in the garden, and I appreciate that benefit, but I will not provide an environment in which a chicken cannot launch itself into the air, squawking along the way, in order to join the flock for a treat, or just because.
Phenology is the study of recurring plant and animal life cycles and their relationship to weather. Mother Nature has her own schedule for when things will happen, regardless of what the date is on the calendar. You might have a general idea of when things will occur, such as when certain trees and bushes will bloom and when the Japanese beetles show up each year. When these things happen, they are the trigger for other things to occur. Insects are attracted to certain blooms, so they will be most abundant when their hosts are the most prolific, such as the ladybug on the cowpea flower in the photo. If the insects we are talking about are ones that are a nuisance in your garden, knowing when they might be their peak will help you provide protection for your crops or schedule them before or after the times of the most insect pressure. Being flexible is the key, since they are following Mother Nature’s schedule, not the calendar. Festivals for certain blooms or crops are planned for the same week on the calendar each year, which doesn’t always coincide when the blooms are actually blooming or the crop is actually in. The Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C. comes to mind.
The temperature of the soil has a bearing on when things in nature occur. You might find it interesting to take the temperature of your soil in the same spot every week from now (if your ground isn’t frozen) until well into the summer. Make sure it is the same spot and the same time of day. You might check more than one spot and really find out how things are doing in your garden. The planting guides that advise when to plant by soil temperature will hold more meaning for you after that. Learn more about phenology and how to take the temperature of your soil at Homeplace Earth. At the same time you are recording the soil temperature, notice what is going on around you. Have new birds or insects shown up? Are new things blooming? Make a note of those things.
A shady spot in your garden will differ from one with continuous sun. I became aware of the difference mulch made on the soil temperature one year in early March when our son, Luke, was filming me in the garden so I could show what was going on there in my community college classroom. I had my hand in the soil in one bed with bare soil. Then I pulled the leaf mulch back in another bed and stuck my hand in to show how soft the soil was under that mulch. I found the soil temperature to be noticeably cooler. If you mulch your garden beds over the winter, pull the mulch back about two weeks before you intend to plant so the sun will warm the soil. The records you keep might not mean much the first year, but if you have a record over several years, you will begin to see a pattern. Even if you don’t write anything down, you will learn much by noticing what is happening around you and putting your hand in the soil now and then.
Learn more about Cindy Conner and what she’s up to at www.HomeplaceEarth.wordpress.com.
I have been fantasizing about woodchips for the better part of a year now. This may strike you as a little odd but if you love gardening and understand the benefits of woodchip mulch as much as I do, then it probably sounds just right. Woodchips as mulch and ground cover has been shown to be more effective than other material (i.e. grass clippings, leaves or straw) at soil moisture retention, temperature moderation and weed control while also preventing erosion and compaction. It improves soil structure and increases gas transfer, nutrient levels and biodiversity of beneficial organisms. The myths that woodchips leave the soil more acidic or could spread disease from tree to soil have been busted. If you don’t feel like doing the research but do want to be inspired, you can watch a free documentary online called Back to Eden.
Wood for Thought
Yet with all this wonderful knowledge we have, it still requires us to get woodchips and lots of them. My approach to things like this is different than most people I know. My whole approach to everything is “What if there was no Home Depot (or mom and pop for that matter)?” What if I couldn’t just drive into town and buy whatever I needed? Not that I am a purist of some kind, but I do like being resourceful and using what I have in new ways so I don’t have to go buy things if I don’t need to. Once I have exhausted all means, I will use outside help. After all, even the first European colonies in the new world relied on regular shipments of supplies before they got on their feet. Being reluctant to change for sustainable purposes is silly because it doesn’t even have to include much change. It just requires new ways of looking at what you already have.
For example: My next door neighbor has a wood burning stove. It’s great for a heat source but living on ¼ acre lots all piled next to each other in suburban Olympia as we are leaves most people buying their wood supply to cut at home. My neighbor is one of these and certainly with no judgment here because this isn’t my point. Instead I’m focused on how days after Christmas their real Christmas tree is outside on the curb waiting to be picked up by the garbage man. Let me rephrase this, they buy wood labeled ‘firewood’ for heat but throw away wood labeled ‘Christmas’. You bought that tree, why not use it all? I keep all my Christmas trees and I have a pellet stove. Once they are dried I cut the limbs off and split the tree into logs for our fire pit. I may not use the logs for a year or so after, but when the power goes out on a cold night or we decide to have friends over for a campfire and watch the stars, we have everything we need on hand.
I look at my tree trimmings the exact same way. I used to just pile up the branches behind our tool shed until I needed them for something. I quickly had a big pile just sitting there not being used when one day I wondered how I could use them as woodchips. I don’t have a wood chipper and didn’t want to rent one just for small branches. I looked online for hand-operated ones to own, because I like finding options that don’t require gas like my reel mower and hand saws, but found basically nothing. I had a great idea to just put the branches in a trashcan and smash them into little chips with a shovel, but that didn’t work out at all how I envisioned it and so quickly gave up. One night, I saw a clip of a native preparing a root tonic for a ceremony. He had a club and was smashing the roots to more easily pull them apart before adding them into the cooking pot. Here was my light bulb moment.
Making Homemade Woodchips
The first thing I do is put on a good podcast to listen to. Spending six years in the navy taught me to use all my time wisely so while I am doing some mindless task, I like to learn stuff at the same time. Some organic gardening or sustainable podcast does nice here.
I trimmed all the branches of about 1/4” to 1” inch thickness of their smaller twigs, making clean one-branch limbs and kept the smaller twigs as kindling or compost material.
I would load up a trashcan of these limbs with just enough to take less than an hour to go through them all. There was no reason to do it all in one day. We are busy creatures in today’s world and so a little at a time gets the job done.Using my heavy hammer I would smash the limbs just enough so I could thread them apart and cut them easier. The drier limbs that would break into dust by smashing them I would just cut. The greener branches are the ones that need to be softened before cutting.
Once I softened them all I would use my trimming tool to cut the smashed limbs into 1” inch or so song pieces. You can do longer pieces but I went smaller for this round.
Whenever I would get home from work and wanted to spend a little time outside before the sun went down, I would go gather some limbs and make woodchips. About five trips of this went through my entire wood pile taking about five hours total, way faster than I thought it would take.
Now I have a cleaned out back of the tool shed, organized kindling and compost pile, new wood for the firepit and woodchips for the herb garden. On top of this I got fresh air, moderate exercise and a sense of satisfaction after using my land wisely. Talk about win-win (and win). Most people wouldn’t spend the time doing this but that’s ok. The point of this article is to remind us that we have resources available but our consumer culture has trained us to throw it away without thinking about it. Don’t be the one who tosses grass clippings then buys fertilizer for your struggling yard. Don’t be the one who throws away veggie scraps when you can compost them. Don’t be the one with the woodstove who throws out your Christmas tree.
Aaron Miller lives in Olympia Washington where he grows organic vegetables and herbs. He and his wife make natural products at home in pursuit of a simpler life. They share their products and ideas at www.TheMillerCollection.org and ItsAllTheSameThing.Wordpress.com.
In the February-March issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, I discuss the health benefits of eating whole-wheat foods. But I also stress that wheat isn't good for everyone. Just under one percent of people in the United States suffer from an autoimmune condition called celiac disease, in which certain peptides — protein fragments produced during digestion of wheat's gluten proteins — severely damage the walls of the intestines. In addition, an estimated one-half percent are allergic to wheat, while a still-unknown number of Americans have a less well-defined condition often characterized as wheat sensitivity or gluten intolerance. It is universally recommended that people who have celiac disease, allergies, or a definitive diagnosis of gluten intolerance refrain from eating foods that contain grain from any type of wheat or from related species such as barley or rye.
As often happens with widely publicized medical conditions that affect a very small segment of the population, millions of additional people have become convinced in recent years that they also are gluten-intolerant when they are not. During the past two and a half years, a cloud of confusion has enveloped the issue of wheat's impact on the human body. Much of the fog has been created by cardiologist William Davis and his bestselling 2011 book Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health. In the book and elsewhere, Davis recommends that everyone, including those who are free of any wheat-related medical condition, should adopt a wheat-free diet. He blames wheat consumption for causing a host of medical problems: gastrointestinal disruption, obesity, diabetes, autism, hyperactivity disorders, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, dementia, coronary artery disease and even erectile dysfunction.
There has been other anti-wheat writing coming out — for example David Perlmutter's more recent Grain Brain — but the wheat-free frenzy, which show no signs of ebbing (yet), was largely triggered by Wheat Belly. To support his claims, Davis cites evidence from his own practice, noting that patients whom he has put on wheat-free diets have lost weight while experiencing other health improvements. However, such anecdotal observations do not implicate wheat as the sole or even primary cause of those conditions.
Experts have pointed out that the symptoms that lead many people to a self-diagnosis of gluten intolerance can be caused by a wide range of factors unrelated to wheat, and that excluding wheat or any major ingredient or class of food from the diet usually does lead to lower total calorie consumption and weight loss. On the other hand, a 2010 report from the long-running Framingham [Massachusetts] Heart Study showed that subjects who adhered most closely to dietary guidelines that included five servings of grains per day—with whole wheat products prominent—achieved greater loss of belly fat than any other group.
In point-by-point reviews of Davis's claims published by the Journal of Cereal Science and the American Association of Cereal Chemists' journal Cereal Foods World, very little in Wheat Belly has stood up to scientific scrutiny; in particular, thorough examination of published research (some of it published in the years since Wheat Belly came out) has turned up little or no solid experimental evidence to support the notion that wheat is a top culprit in modern health problems.
Nevertheless, growing numbers of Americans have become convinced that their health improves when they abstain from wheat. How much of that improvement is the result of a placebo effect similar to that associated with many medical treatments — a phenomenon “common in adults,” according to the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center? A placebo-controlled experiment published by the American Journal of Gastroenterology in 2012 provides some clues. The study, conducted in Italy, drew its subjects from a pool of 926 non-celiac patients who displayed the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and had received a diagnosis of wheat sensitivity. After four weeks of a diet that excluded wheat, cow's milk, eggs, tomato, and chocolate, subjects embarked on a double-blind, placebo-controlled “crossover”-style experiment in which half of patients consumed a daily “dose” of wheat for two weeks and then for another two weeks consumed a placebo; meanwhile, the other group of subjects consumed the placebo for the first two weeks and wheat for the second. At the end of the trial, analysis of symptoms showed that only 30 percent of patients in either group had had a negative reaction to wheat; the other 70 percent, despite their previous diagnosis, were not actually wheat-sensitive.
Just as significantly, of the 276 patients who did react negatively to wheat, 206 turned out to have sensitivity to multiple foods, with “clinical features similar to those found in allergic patients.” The study showed that wheat sensitivity is a real medical condition for some people, but that fewer that 8 percent of subjects who had originally been diagnosed as wheat-sensitive actually reacted badly to wheat alone.
Flying in the face of published research, Davis also charges that wheat proteins called gliadins, one class of gluten protein, act as an addictive drug, compelling us to overeat. He claims, “Everybody ... is susceptible to the gliadin protein that is an opiate. This thing binds into the opiate receptors in your brain and in most people stimulates appetite, such that we consume 440 more calories per day, 365 days per year.” Davis's claim that gliadins are addictive is based on a 1979 finding that in cell cultures, certain peptide fragments from gliadins bound to the same receptor sites in the brain as did opium-derived drugs. Although Davis would have readers believe that these peptides, known as opioids (not “opiates”), are unique to wheat, the 1979 study also found that opioids from rice, spinach and milk also bound to those same receptors. These data were generated by treating cell cultures and rat organs directly with purified opioids; no research has been conducted in which people are examined for mental effects after consuming wheat. There still is no evidence that when wheat foods are consumed and digested, that opioids are produced or absorbed or that they move through the bloodstream unaltered to the brain receptors in doses large enough to have an addictive effect or stimulate any particular behavior.
In my next post, I will examine recent claims that new wheat varieties have worse negative health effects than do older ones.
Photo by Fotolia.
In October 2013, MOTHER EARTH NEWS launched the Stink Bug Survey as a citizen science project to gather information about the spread and behavior of the brown marmorated stink bug (Halyomorpha halys). A smelly invasive insect from northern Korea and Japan that was first seen in eastern Pennsylvania in 1998, the brown marmorated stink bug has now been identified in 35 states. These home and garden pests survive winter in houses, buildings and bark crevices in trees. When populations become high, they can devastate many vegetables, fruits and flowers.
Where Are the Stink Bugs Now?
The good news is that survey respondents in the far South, Southwest and far North of the United States are not seeing these distinctive stink bugs with light bands on their antennae in their houses or gardens. Hundreds of respondents from Georgia to Arizona reported that they have never seen brown marmorated stink bugs crawling on window screens, an extremely common sight in the mid-Atlantic states, where stink bug infestations are most severe.
Surprisingly, the area where the brown marmorated stink bugs were first observed, near Allentown, Pa., is not emerging as a current stink bug hot spot according to our survey.
The highest numbers of people reporting that “stink bugs in my house are out of control and driving me nuts” came from Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and several rural and suburban areas in the mid-Atlantic region. See “Stink Bug Hot Spots” below for lists of the most severely affected counties, by state.
As to how the stink bugs are moving from one place to another, our stink bug survey shows them following the interstate highway system, with long skips between metropolitan areas. Rather than moving steadily westward from tree to bush, our data (and typical marmorated stink bug behavior) suggest that these pests are professional hitchhikers. For example, it would be quite easy for several hundred stink bugs to fly into a truck being loaded in Pittsburgh on a mild October day, and then disperse in Columbus, Ohio, the next day, when the truck warmed up from being parked in the sun. Next thing you know, they are in Ohio kitchens. The I-70 Corridor across Pennsylvania into Ohio is a clear route by which the stink bugs may have spread. A second southwestward trail down I-81 likely scattered the stink bugs down the Blue Ridge to their current southernmost outpost in Chattanooga, Tenn., home to numerous well-equipped truck stops.
The newest remote stink bug outpost is Clackamas County, Ore., where stink bugs probably arrived in a packing crate almost 10 years ago. The westward and limited southward movement of the stink bugs is in keeping with scientists' predictions that the brown marmorated stink bug could successfully colonize the parts of North America and Europe that fall between the 30th and 50th parallels — from North Carolina and Tennessee in the South to the lower Great Lakes. In this regard, it appears that our survey is on track, but many more responses are needed to learn earth-safe strategies for managing this invasive insect.
Stink Bug Hot Spots
We received numerous reports of stink bug sightings throughout these five states, but the counties listed below show the highest number of serious stink bug problems in houses and buildings (counties with the very worst problems appear in bold).
Maryland: Baltimore, Carroll, Frederick, Harford, Howard, Montgomery
Ohio: Columbiana, Delaware, Franklin, Hamilton, Mahoning
Pennsylvania: Allegheny, Beaver, Chester , Lancaster, Washington, Westmoreland, York
West Virginia: Berkeley, Hancock, Kanawha, Ohio, Marshall, Morgan
Virginia: Albemarle, Culpeper, Frederick, Loudoun, Madison, Warren
In addition, stink bugs appear to have become well-established in some areas of these states:
In Tennessee, Chattanooga is under siege from brown marmorated stink bugs, with only isolated reports elsewhere in the state.
In North Carolina, healthy stink bug populations are reported for the northeast corner from Mt. Airy to Winston-Salem, with hints of lurking trouble in the heart of the state.
Stink bugs are present in other states from Delaware to Maine and west to Missouri, but our sample sizes for those states are too small to interpret at this time. As more people complete the Stink Bug Survey, we will be monitoring the results for trends and observations. Please take the survey if you have not already done so — as with any citizen science project, we are relying on your input. Thank you in advance!
In our next report, we will explore what we are learning from the survey about stink bug behavior in homes and gardens.
Photo by Fotolia/epantha
Contributing editor Barbara Pleasant gardens in
southwest Virginia, where she grows vegetables, herbs, fruits, flowers and a few lucky
chickens. Contact Barbara by visiting her website or
finding her on Google+.
Please. Try not to scream.
This is a well-known combination to many organic gardeners. It’s also more commonly known as bat guano.
Bats have been feared as early as Dracula first came out on the big screen in 1931, incorporating a fear into the minds of the audience for blood-sucking creatures of the night. A few decades later, Stephen King paints a picture of bats in his book Cujo, where a bat transmits rabies to a family’s dog which then turns on its own family.
As more information is collected about bats, the better scientists understand the important role they play, both within cave ecosystems, forests, and entire food systems. Whether it is local and organic or global and industrial, bats are good. If a man’s best friend is a dog then a gardener’s best friend must be the bats. Someone needs to rewrite the script.
Bat guano, coming from the Peruvian word “huano” which means excrement, has been used since 200 B.C. as an organic fertilizer. And it has been exploited and profited from, like many other resources. Bat populations have been decreasing all around the world due to factors such as inappropriate bat guano mining, habitat loss due to development, and the spread of White Nose Syndrome (WNS). As a result, organizations such as the Bat Conservation International (BCI) is working to educate people about what they can do to protect bats and their habitats.
Although bat guano works great as an organic fertilizer, it also serves a larger purpose within cave ecosystems. “It’s the primary energy driver for cave ecosystems,” according to Dave Waldien, director of global programs at BCI. “Inappropriate guano mining is very bad for the cave ecosystem, then the bats themselves.” If the production of guano mining continues while all the bats are there, it can kill them in large numbers, drive the bats further into the cave, or force the bats to abandon the cave, according to Waldien. Guano mining has been done illegally since at least the 1850s, when Americans loaded guano deposits from the caves on Isla de Mona, Puerto Rico, according to the Journal of Cave and Karst Studies. Isla de Mona is an island surrounded by large cave systems. It was first legally mined in 1877 and in less than 100 years, 7 of the 8 cave systems were depleted. The last commercial guano mining on this island finished in 1927.
And this is only one example.
“The challenges are often the communities,” said Waldien. “While some countries have very strong laws as written, they’re often not implemented. To use the Philippines as an example, there are laws against guano mining without permits yet most of the guano mining goes on without permits.” Sometimes laws do not exist. And other times local communities may make the decision to mine guano for immediate financial needs rather than think in terms of long-term sustainability, according to Waldien. “In many of the tropical systems, cave disturbances that come from inappropriate guano mining has potentially driven bats out of these caves so what should of been a renewable resource has become a mine-it-out-and-you’re-done scenario.”
Although guano mining has stopped from most locations in the United States, mining it in a sustainable manner is “something that can be done,” according to Waldien. “And if done right, it doesn’t have to negatively impact bats.” With an increase in public awareness and proper harvesting techniques, bat guano will remain a renewable resource for organic farmers, despite any past guano mining exploits.
“Most of the sites that are mined for guano are sites that have Brazilian free-tail bats ‘cause they form really, really huge summer colonies,” said Katie Gillies, U.S. imperiled species coordinator at BCI. “Consequently, they create a lot of guano.”
Currently, there are between 120 and 150 million Brazilian free-tailed bats estimated globally and the population is stable, according to the Virgin River Habitat Conservation and Recovery Program (VRHCRP). While guano mining is not a threat to this species of bats, it does increase the chances of creating a disturbance to roost sites, which are the bats primary threat next to pesticides.
Roosting refers to where bats live. It could be where they hibernate - if they do - or where females raise their pup. Thousands of bats die each year due to disturbances during hibernation, causing them to wake up and burn their energy reserves, according to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
Pesticides then pose the next greatest threat, where the biggest issue “would be in reducing the insect supply for the bats to eat,” said Christina Kocer, northeast WNS coordinator at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Bats are also beneficial to food systems in more ways than just their poop. They are an organic alternative to pesticides and insecticides. For example, the bats at Bracken Cave can eat 250 tons of insects each night, according to the BLM. Many of those insects can be crop pests, such as different beetles, leafhoppers, and moths. That means as bat populations decrease, the use of pesticides increase. As do the insects eating crops. But not all bats eat insects. Some of them eat fruit and seeds, cross-pollinating flowers at the same time they eat.
“You can’t have organic farming without bats,” said Gillies. Or farming. “Recent studies have shown that bats provide an average of 23 billion dollars a year in ecosystem services through pest control,” said Gillies. “I mean, that’s more than the farm bill.”While inappropriate bat guano mining and disturbances to roost sites may affect bat populations, neither of these factors have anything to do with the 5.7 million dead bats in North America within the past 8 years. These deaths are attributable to WNS. WNS is a fungus that affects hibernating bats, much like disturbing them would do. It first appeared in the United States in 2006-07 in a cave in New York and has since been confirmed in 22 states and 5 Canadian provinces, according to WhiteNoseSyndrome.org.“The fungus is found on bats in Europe but it doesn’t cause mass mortalities,” said Gillies. “And looking at the molecular signature of this fungus [scientists] can see it’s been present on the landscape in Europe for many, many thousands of years.”
WNS does not affect humans although humans can spread the fungus, making it important to not visit caves where bats are hibernating or where WNS is present. “Don’t go underground in a site that doesn’t have white nose if you were recently in a site that has white nose,” said Gillies. “And always decontaminate your gear in between sites. That’s the best thing we can do.” Because WNS is new to the United States, the current lack of funding leaves organizations unable to do much to stop the spread. “There’s a lot of information that you have to gather just to have base line data on what to do next,” said Gillies. “We’re finally at the stage where we have enough base line data but the biggest problem is that we don’t have enough research funding to find ways to stop it.”
If bat guano is mined from a site infected with WNS and spread near a site that is not affected, it can potentially spread the spores, although mining bat guano is not a contributing factor to WNS. “Unless the guano is processed to a manner that kills the fungus that causes WNS, it’s not a good idea to take the guano and spread it around,” said Waldien.
Most of the guano comes from the Philippines, Indonesia, Madagascar, and central and South America and it is not affected by WNS, according to Kocer.