With its highly ranked football team and its starting quarterback, Danny Wuerffel, the University of Florida is well known in the sports world. Who knows that the school is also the home of one of the largest man-made bat houses in the U.S., the residents of which help protect Gators fans from mosquito bites?
The 20-by-20-foot bat house, located on the Gainesville campus near Lake Alice, accommodates 100,000—more than Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, which seats a mere 83,000. Florida athletic department officials say that the $20,000 spent to build the house was a prudent investment. According to Danny Sheldon, assistant athletic director for facilities and operations, "The bats aren't roosting in our stadiums anymore, and they eat lots of insects, including mosquitoes."
In fact, the 20,000 bats in residence eat as many as 20 million pesky critters (weighing up to 500 pounds) every night. The university's pest-control manager, entomologist Ken Glover, says, "We no longer spray. We depend on the bats for pest control."
Bats have long been a part of the campus community, but in 1987 the colony's original roost, Johnson Hall, burned down, and the 4,000 displaced bats moved into the university's new stadiums for track and field and for tennis. The bats' odor attracted the attention of Bob Martinez, then Florida's governor, who was attending a summer track and field meet for high school athletes on the Florida campus, when he reportedly asked, "What's that smell?"
"When the governor made a stink about the stink, the University Athletic Association had to deal with it," says entomologist Dr. William Kern Jr., of the state Department of Wildlife and Conservation, who works with the university. The bat house was the brainchild of another entomologist, Dr. Jackie Belwood, who was doing a postdoctoral pest-control study on campus. "When Jackie approached us with her idea," says Sheldon, "I said, 'Right. Like the UAA will really spring for this.' " But, he adds, "it was out of the question to eradicate the bats."
"We had to do the right thing," says athletic director Jeremy Foley. Florida architect Bill Hunter was summoned to design the perfect bat condo. The wooden structure had to stand on long legs to give the animals a drop distance for takeoff. "They need a wingful of air to get going," says Glover. The house was mounted on 18-foot-high pylons and fitted with insulation and a tin roof (to reflect the heat of the sun). A slatted floor allows the bats to come and go as they please.
After the bat house was completed, it was "carpeted" with bat guano to make it more homey. "We had to get rid of that new-house smell," says Belwood. On the night of the big move—Sept. 24, 1991—Marshall Hanks, a bat expert from Sturgeon Bay, Wis., trapped the bats and moved them to their new abode, where the floor slats were closed to keep the bats in for a 24-hour housewarming. Alas, after the slats were opened the following day, all 3,000 bats took off, never to return.
Having spent a bundle on the bat house, the UAA kept a "low profile for two years," Foley says. "We were worried about getting our money's worth and wondered if we could get some students to move in up there."
Then in March 1993, a covey of 18 male bats moved in. They stayed only until April, but another 300 bachelors appeared the following March. By February '95 about 1,000 females had moved in, and by April, 3,000 bats were in residence. At the end of May baby bats were born, doubling the population. Now when bats stream out of the house every evening at dusk, a crowd gathers to watch. The bats have become such an attraction that Gators alumnus and bat fan George Marks, who lives in Madeira Beach, Fla., recently donated $2,000 to build a viewing facility.
"Soon," says Glover, "we may have the first BAT CROSSING sign in the world."