Derry Area High School ecology students build, donate bat boxes to Keystone State Park
Derry Area High School's Pennsylvania Environment and Ecology class is doing its part to help bolster the bat population at Keystone State Park.
With bats throughout the Northeastern United States and Canada succumbing to disease at alarming rates in recent years, student teacher Jessie Ross, who recently graduated from Penn State University, led students in the class in a project to build six bat boxes, which the flying mammals can use as convenient sleeping sites, and donate them to the state park in Derry Township.
“I had done it before, and it went really well,” Ross said of the bat box project. “I know a lot of times people don't think of them. They jump on the bluebird boxes and kind of run with it. I wanted to do something that was connected to the environmental class but different.”
The boxes ideally will give bats a place to hibernate where they are less likely to come in contact with the fungus that causes the deadly white-nose syndrome, Ross said.
The syndrome, first documented in New York in the winter of 2006-07, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has killed an estimated 5.5 million bats throughout the Northeast and Canada.
The disease affects hibernating bats, causing them to become active and burn off their winter fat reserves.
“Typically when we're talking about white nose, we're talking about the cave-dwelling bats in the caves and mine shafts that we monitor,” Pennsylvania Game Commission spokesman Travis Lau said. “With those cave-dwelling bats and the sites that we monitor, we've seen up to 99 percent mortality in some bat species.”
White-nose syndrome has been confirmed in five species of bat in the state: little brown, big brown, tricolored, northern long-eared and the endangered Indiana bat.
The class broke into five groups to build six bat boxes from plywood, cutting horizontal ridges onto the vertical surfaces of the wood to give bats a ladder to climb to the top of the shelter.
“There's going to be at least two of these going up in the next few weeks,” Keystone State Park manager Kris Baker said. “The ones we have up now are a very similar design, and they've been up for about a decade.”
Paul Barnhart, a senior who led one of the groups, said the class spent about two weeks of class time on the project.
To attract bats to the new boxes, Baker said, he will employ an effective but somewhat unsavory trick: splashing a mixture of bat droppings, or guano, and water on the base of the pole.
“You can really tell how many are going in there by the amount of guano at the bottom of the post. It's not classy, it's not glamorous, but it's effective,” Baker said. “... You can probably fit over a hundred in one of these. They pack in there tight.”
Each bat can consume thousands of mosquitoes and flying insects per night, making them a crucial component of the ecosystem and benefiting humans by keeping insect populations in check.
“As far as the Game Commission is concerned, we're concerned first for those bats, but when you deal with wildlife issues, ultimately you deal also with people issues,” Lau said. “Farmers' groups have expressed concern over the decline of the bat population and what that might do to farming practices, requiring them to use more pesticides, increasing the cost of their operations. ... I think everyone, particularly those who live in areas with high mosquito populations, can appreciate the ecological role the bat plays in keeping insect numbers down.”
Greg Reinbold is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2913, or firstname.lastname@example.org.