Black Forest resident Dave Betts is combining a passion for home building and woodworking with an interest in bat conservation. He creates habitats for the winged miller moth-eating mammals.
Betts, who owns Betts Construction, first became interested in bats and how they interact with the local ecology when a bat inadvertently got caught in his home one afternoon. He said he became fascinated while helping his wife try to get it out the door. “After about 45 minutes watching it and trying to shoo it out with a towel, we realized we didn't have a clue about bats,” he said. “But later I realized my daughter has horses and they're susceptible to West Nile, and some of my clients were complaining about miller moths. I did some research and noticed that bats eat miller moths and mosquitoes. I put two and two together and decided to learn more about them.”
According to Bat Conservation International, a single brown bat can eat as many as 1,000 mosquito-sized insects in a single night, while a pregnant or lactating female can eat its own body weight in insects in the same time. The bat’s eating habits help control the mosquito-borne illness, the West Nile Virus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 693 people have gotten ill and 41 people have died from the virus so far this year.
BCI states that bats also help pollinate and spread seeds for plants and trees. In Latin America, bats are the primary pollinator for the agave plant, a crop that is used for tequila and sugar alternatives.
Farmers and ranchers appreciate bats because of their healthy appetite for insects. “Folks out in Kansas have bat houses for thousands of bats, and they can almost eliminate their need for insecticide,” Betts said.
However, during his research into the flying mammal, Betts discovered that bats are in a state of crisis. “We've lost 45 percent of our bats over the last couple years – mostly from a disease that came from the Northeast,” he said. White-Nose Syndrome, a fungus that causes bats to awake from hibernation early and freeze to death, has devastated bat populations across the United States the past five years, according to the BCI website.
Restoring the population will take time. “A mother bat will only have one pup a year,” Betts said. “Installing a bat house will make a difference by providing them a habitat and a healthier environment.” Predators that frequent populated areas are also an issue. “They have to worry about squirrels, cats and birds. Anything that will try to eat them,” he added.
Enter Betts and what he describes as “luxury bat houses” that he builds in his Black Forest workshop. He hand makes and sells three models of bat houses, which he markets to fellow conservationists, ranchers, farmers and people who want to control miller moths. While larger than traditional bird houses, these bat houses can hold significantly more animals for the space. His smallest single-chamber model will hold as many as 45 bats, and the largest four-chamber unit can hold 250 of the nocturnal creatures.
“Bats are like communal hippies, they like to congregate and cram in there to hang like sardines,” Betts said. “The Bat Conservation International people have done a lot of research comparing how much space they like, how high it should be mounted, what color they should be painted.”
He uses this information to create what he believes is an almost ideal artificial habitat. “I paint the inside and out of the bat chambers black because they like to be hot and it takes advantage of the solar energy during the day,” Betts said. “Then, I add small air vents so they can move up or down in the chamber to get the right temperature, but small enough because they don't like drafts.”
Betts received the only Colorado “Bat Approved” bat house builder certification from BCI. The program has been in place since 1998 to “improve the quality of bat houses and to provide guidance for those interested in purchasing a bat house,” according to the BCI website.
The houses Betts provides to his clients are built from reclaimed wood from decks and other outdoor refinishing projects. “The reclaimed redwood isn't going to rot or deteriorate very fast, so it will last longer,” he said. “And it would have ended up in your landfill, so we're being green too. But it comes at a price. It's really rough on my equipment, and it takes a lot of work and materials to prepare and paint it.”
The bat house in his own backyard has been up since March, and it already has at least four or five residents that he's seen so far. “If you build it, they will come,” he said. “They won't swarm it right away, but if it's installed correctly and it’s in an area that has the right criteria, they'll move in.” He said bats frequent the Black Forest and Falcon areas from early June through September. Then, he said, “Half migrate down to the Pueblo area, and maybe half down to Mexico. They look for at least 65 degree day time temperatures.”
Bats tend to return after migration and hibernation to familiar caves or habitats, according to BCI researchers. But as bat pups are born in particular locations and return to rear their own young, the population that identifies a well-built bat house as home will increase over several seasons. If building and cave tourism disrupts their habitats in the meantime, a lack of suitable and easy-to-find replacement habitat will disrupt their breeding patterns.
It's a win-win situation for the bats and the people who install bat houses on their property. In addition to the lower moth and mosquito populations, “They're fun to watch. I'll grab a cocktail and go out there and watch them for an hour just whipping around,” Betts said.
He said the best situation for a bat house is a nature-friendly homeowner, water within 1 mile, an area that gets six to eight hours of sunlight each day and an area at least 25 feet away from trees. The site for installing the bat houses needs to be void of bright lights. Betts said bats are relatively clean and don’t tend to deposit their guano inside their houses.
Anyone regulated by home owner associations should obviously check first before installing a bat house.
Betts said he hopes that owners of large land sites such as golf courses and water boards will see the benefit for their clients and the environment, but any homeowner or rancher can earn dividends from the bats’ presence. The environment wins, too.
And, yes, his friends do call him Batman. “Oh yea,” he chuckled. “I just call up my supplier and say 'hey, it's Batman again' and they know exactly what I need.”
Betts offers the bat houses for sale directly and periodically at the Black Forest Art Guild.
For more information, contact Betts at Betts_construction@yahoo.com.
Bat houses can be an important asset for farmers, ranchers and homeowners in general.