The “white-nose syndrome” killing bats in New York, Vermont and Massachusetts has now spread to Connecticut and northeast Vermont according to a recent NPR report, and possibly into Pennsylvania, as well. Scientists still have not identified or determined a cause for the disease which kills up to 90% of the bats in infected caves, leading some to worry about entire species being decimated.
The illness is not specific to one species of bat either, but effecting all species in an area. Some effected bats have a white fungus on their nose, others become emaciated, disoriented or partake in bizarre behavior like leaving the cave in the middle of a snow storm. While scientists dissect the bats to try to determine causality and volunteers try to rehabilitate and save some of the animals, the Fish and Wildlife Service has yet to appoint a full time person to coordinate. This is surprising given the critical role that bats play as pollinators. Of particular concern are already endangered Indiana bats, should the disease move further west. Some people are also urging scientists to examine possible links between the ailing bats, new pesticides and genetically modified crops. The collapse of bat cave populations is happening in tandem with the worsening of colony collapse disorder among honey bees. Commercial beekeepers in North America, particularly in the West, are reporting record high bee loses of 34% in the U.S. this spring, up from 25% loss in 2007. By the time the commercial beekeepers get to crops like blueberries and apples that are pollinated later in the season, they may not have enough bees to be effective. The possible response to bring in Africanized bees from Mexico to finish the job would also finish off the remaining honey bees and seems a poor short term or long term solution. While nobody can say for certain at this point what is causing these key pollinators to perish, it is clear that their immune systems are stressed out, they are not getting enough nutrition and something, or perhaps some things, in our environment is causing this. In terms of the timing of the start of the problems, the introduction of neonicotoid pesticides and the pervasiveness of genetically modified crops seem quite suspect. In particular, some are pointing to the BT toxin in GM foods as a possible culprit with the bees. Scientists will need to find a cause soon and government will need to take these issues seriously. With food prices already soaring, the last thing we need is another pressure on agriculture. The bee keepers cannot weather another year of huge losses and the bats may not survive if the disease affecting them spreads much further. The survival of the bats and the bees is critical to our own survival and we should be treating it as such.