White-nose syndrome may increase cost of pest control for farmers

Farmers may be paying more for pest control as white-nose syndrome spreads through the country and claims more bats. Bats are one of the primary predators of beetles and moths and save the U.S. agricultural industry at least $3 billion a year in pest control, according to a study published last year.

Authors of the study, from the University of Pretoria (South Africa), the US Geological Survey (USGS), the University of Tennessee and Boston University, say that bats save farmers between $3 billion and $53 billion a year in pest control (Western Farm Press). Authors predicted that losses in bats could mean severe economic losses for farmers over the next five years if the present rate of disease spread continues.

White-nose syndrome was first discovered in Albany, New York in 2007. Since then, it has spread throughout the Northeast and down the Appalachians to Alabama, and is as far north as Canada and as far west as Kentucky. Experts from the Fish and Wildlife Service predict that the disease will eventually spread to the rest of the country.

The disease gets its name from the white fungus that appears on the bats’ muzzles, tails or wings. The fungus causes bats to deplete fat reserves stored for long hibernation, causing them to rouse themselves too early and hunt for food. Bats awaken before spring has begun and insects have amassed, so most bats die of starvation before there are enough insects to eat.

Biologists have estimated that 5.5 million to 6.7 million bats have died so far from white-nose syndrome. Although a biologist from Wisconsin has identified the fungus as a cold-loving fungus from the genus Geomyces, scientists still don’t know enough about the fungus or how it affects bat biology. Currently, bats seem to have no way to resist the fungus, and scientists have no way to treat it.

In May, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the availability of $1.4 million in research grants to study white-nose syndrome and ways to stop the spread. Requests for proposals, as well as general news and information about white-nose syndrome, can be found at http://www.fws.gov/whitenosesyndrome/.

Fish and Wildlife Service experts hope that researchers will discover the biology of the fungus and find a way to stop it before some of the already threatened and endangered bat species become extinct. Scientists say that the disease has reduced bat populations in some caves by 90 percent. Besides the threat to conservation, the disease could be economically devastating to the agricultural sector.

News source: Schoof, Renee. White-nose syndrome imperils more bats. News and Observer, 5 June 2012, p. 17A.

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