The University of Florida Bat House

By George Marks, U of F Alumnus

 

The University of Florida bat house, which is located on campus just north of Lake Alice, was constructed in 1991. It consists of a single gabled roof, the base of which is situated twenty feet above the ground on five wood poles.  The house is eighteen feet square and is constructed of exterior grade plywood. To the casual observer it might look like a big attic on stilts. Under the “attic” there are 180 crevices created by partitions spaced at varying distances of 3/4, 1 and 1-1/4 inches apart. These crevices were designed to provide comfortable living quarters for an estimated 250,000 bats.

 

If you would like to see the bat house simply drive west on Museum Road. The bat house will be on your right at the northwest end of Lake Alice just after you pass the road to Corry Village. You can’t miss it. The bat logo on the front is a dead giveaway. The Lake Alice location was chosen since it was remote from campus commotion, pesticides, close to water and provided an unobstructed flight path for the bats. The bat house has proven to be a controversial edifice up until the last year or so, but that’s what this story is all about.

 

UF bat house photo 

 

 

The story begins in 1987 when a fire destroyed Johnson Hall which was then located on Buckman Drive just next to Dauer Hall. Johnson Hall had been home to nearly 5,000 Brazilian free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis cynocephela). A different subspecies known as the Mexican free-tailed bat   (T. brasiliensis mexicanus) is common in the western U. S. and large colonies migrate each year between the U. S. and Mexico. These are the bats found in great numbers at Carlsbad Caverns and Bracken Cave. Our Brazilian free-tails, however, tend to reside here year round, although, they do move from roost to roost depending on weather conditions, season of the year, human disturbances, etc.; but back to our story.

 

Having lost their home at Johnson Hall, many of these bats discovered that the design of the newly constructed Percy Beard Track and Field Stadiums was just the ticket. Others moved into the west end stands of the Ben Hill Griffin Stadium at Florida Field. The bats seemed to be enjoying their new homes, but many of the fans didn’t care for the musky odor of free-tailed bats let alone the gentle rain of guano as the bats left their roost during the evening games in search of night-flying insects.

It all came to a head when Governor Martinez complained about an odor while he was attending the Sunshine Games.   University  officials decided it was time to solve the problem. Lee Bloomcamp had been head of the university’s pest control department from 1983-1989 and had dealt with bat nuisance problems in buildings many times.  She had been working on the idea of building a bat house on campus for a couple of years.  Her bat house idea had been laughed at but now maybe the time was right. Lee, along with Jackie Belwood, a bat research biologist and graduate of the university, rallied support for the project and obtained a commitment for the funding. The University of Florida Athletic Association contributed $20,000 dollars for the design and construction of the bat house and later contributed another $10,000 for relocating the bats to their new home and bat proofing the old roosts. Everyone realized, of course, that this would be no small task. Just how difficult it would be was yet to be experienced.

 

In September 1991 the tennis complex at the track and field stadium and the stands at Florida Field were fitted with bat excluders. The excluders allowed the bats to leave their roost but prevented them from returning. Approximately 3,000 bats were caught in cages as they came through the excluders, and were transported to the newly constructed bat house near Lake Alice. Unfortunately, the bats only
stayed a night or two and then departed for parts unknown. The only good news was that no one was complaining about a large colony of bats invading some other location, so they apparently found a roost or roosts that created no immediate problem.

 

During the following four years as bats were excluded from other areas of the campus, they were transferred to the new bat house and various techniques were attempted to encourage them to stay. After all, it was a very nice bat house, at least the humans thought so. Some of the techniques used included placing layers of bat guano between boards when the house was constructed, sprinkling additional bat guano in an area above the partitions, placing a black light on a pole near the bat house to attract insects and playing a recording of colony roost chatter inside the house, but all to no avail. As a result the bat house became the butt of numerous jokes, including a quip at Gator Growl which asked, “What next, a high rise for squirrels?”

 

Well, things started looking up in February, 1993 when a group of eighteen bats was spotted in the house. They only stayed until April but raised hopes that perhaps the bat house would attract bats after all. The following year the small group of bats grew to 300 but left in April as before. The new tenants were mostly males who for some unknown reason decided to winter in the “big condo by the lake.” Then in 1995 exciting things began to happen. The colony switched from a small group of males to a larger colony consisting of mostly females. In January there were 1,000, in February 2,000, in March 3,000, in April 3,400 and by May 8,000. The first bat pup was found on May 26, 1995 confirming the formation of a maternity colony, a cause for celebration. This year the structure houses an estimated 20,000 bats and has proven to be a real success story. Ken Glover, Pest Control Manager for UF’s Department of Environmental Health and Safety, has been one of the key players throughout the project’s implementation.  Ken had said all along, “Be patient and they will come.”  Well, he was right and maybe that’s good advice for a lot of bat house owners.

Dr. William H. (Bill) Kern, Jr. who is now serving on the Board of Directors of the Florida Bat Center, was also very much a part of the project. We asked Bill what has been learned from the project and how will it help us as we plan and provide for bat habitat in the future? Bill responded by saying, “The University of Florida bat house has shown us that instead of chasing bat colonies from one roost to another we can reduce nuisance bat problems by providing improved bat habitat in desirable locations. It also appears that a bat colony needs to reach a ‘critical mass’ at which the bats become comfortable and the larger communal roost draws other bats from the surrounding area.”

 

Remarkably, the University of Florida bat house is now growing in popularity, not only with bats, but with the local community, students and visitors. The evening emergence of over 100,000 bats has become quite an attraction. If you are interested in viewing the emergence, plan on being there just before sunset (warm nights are best) and keep your eyes on the bat house. The bats usually exit within a ten minute window shortly after sunset as they leave to forage the Gainesville area doing their share in controlling the night-flying insect population.

 

 
 
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