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April 28, 2003

A Cheap Shot At West Nile

I'm not sure how the rest of Canada feels, but living where I do with Toronto an hour away leaves a vaguely threatening feeling in my gut every time I hear about Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, a.k.a. SARS. At the very beginning of the outbreak, the still new war in Iraq took a very distant second in the media spotlight to the increasingly dire situation brewing in Toronto hospitals. SARS this, masks that, dry cough the other thing... Central Ontario has been saturated with SARS coverage and fear.

Unfortunately, SARS isn't the only disease Ontario (and if I remember correctly, Manitoba) has to worry about. With good weather finally upon us (for what I sincerely and bitterly hope will be more than a few days) the inevitable start of mosquito season means that the resurgence of the West Nile virus' spread into Canada is just around the corner. While the various provincial and federal Ministries of Health are trying to claw some public awareness back towards this encroaching pestilence, the public's attention seems to be drawn to the bigger and scarier disease. Sort of like watching a really bad car wreck, I guess.

In any case, West Nile isn't going to go home just because the media had donned double masks, gowns, gloves, and face shields and is scaring the bejesus out of travelers and Torontonians alike. No, we're going to start seeing more cases of West Nile virus, dead crows, and other animal populations being decimated by this recent immigrant.

Lucky for Canadians (and Americans) everywhere, I'm on the case. Once again I have put my not inconsiderable powers of logic and problem solving and come up with the perfect solution to protecting one's self from West Nile this season. Of course, you could take the easy way out and simply stay home all summer and watch the high-quality reruns that are sure to be on TV. Perhaps you could simply sell it all and move somewhere else, where the mosquitoes aren't. Alert, Alaska, perhaps? If you really need to get outside this summer and enjoy the air quality advisories, you could always don full-length sleeves and pant legs. It would certainly be easier than slathering on another layer of SPF 45. As effective as any of those ideas could be, I think what I've come up with will impact our summer activities quite a bit less.

Mosquitoes are the problem. They transmit West Nile, so to stop the transmission of the virus we need to either stop the mosquitoes from biting us, or get rid of them. Now, before you hop in your pickup truck and start fogging your neighbourhood with your favourite broad-spectrum insecticide, you should know there might be a better way to go about it. Mother Nature has a great way of getting rid of insects in large quantities, without toxifying your neighbourhood in the process: bats. Bats come out when the mosquitoes do, and they can eat an astonishing amount of the irritating little buggers.

The problem as it stands it that you live at your house, but in all likelihood, bats don't. As much as humans can live inside brick and vinyl siding-encased homes, bats prefer much more snug dwellings. I did a quick search on bat house plans, and learned how to build your own bat house. It turns out that bats have some fairly demanding standards when it comes to determining where to live. House colour, the amount of sunlight the house gets, specific dimensions of the house, house location, and even proximity to other bat houses all seem to play fairly major roles in the success of a bat house. (Sounds eerily like what humans look for, minus schools and shopping.) Of course, "success" by this definition means that bats occupy it.

This is one part of my plan that I can foresee not meeting expectations. Just because I'm going to convince the neighbourhood association to erect bat houses in my neighbourhood does not automatically mean that bats are going to come a-calling. There are factors that can contribute to a higher or lower success rates for a bat house, but one statistic isn't going to change very quickly: the bat population in any one community. What my plan relies on, but has no way of affecting, is getting the bats that already exist in your community to start living where you live, and eating the mosquitoes that are eating you. If a bat lives in the middle of nowhere eating mosquitoes, it doesn't do you any good. You want them eating at your house.

Another factor I have not accounted for that could affect the general applicability of this solution throughout a community is the mosquito population. I know that there are mosquitoes in my neighbourhood, thanks likely in part to the storm water management ponds in and around my subdivision. What I do not know is how many mosquitoes (and other insects) are around, and what size bat population the existing insect population could support. Even if I'm wildly successful in getting my neighbours to put bat houses on their homes and businesses, there is no point in having a bat population that is simply going to go hungry in my neighbourhood for lack of bugs. I guess the solution there is to start small, and keep growing incrementally until we have either way too many bats, or bat house occupancy starts dropping off significantly. Looks like it's going to be a multi-year project, with some definite trial-and-error and data logging required.

Thankfully, bat house plans are fairly simple, and can be found free online. One I found in my initial search uses one 4x8 sheet of plywood and two eight-foot 2x4s to create two medium sized bat houses. That's probably less than $20 in materials. Add in some screws, caulking, and paint, and you've still got a really cheap weapon against a nasty mosquito-borne disease. The hardest part of the project will be to find a suitable location for your bat house. It needs to be high, in sunshine as much as possible (to a minimum of 6 hours per day), and apparently bats prefer houses mounted on buildings, as opposed to poles or trees. Due to living in a mid-row townhouse with vinyl siding and facing East-West, I don't think my home is going to be suitable location for a bat house. But that's OK... I'll just have to sweet talk my neighbours.

Unfortunately, there is still one setback that might derail my whole effort. Some people just plain freak out at the sight of a bat. I can't imagine that someone would rather have a lethal fog rolling across their lawn than a family of bats flying well above their head, but anything could happen. I suppose the only way to deal with that is to try and educate people about bats, familiarize them with bats, and see if I can work their phobia into a mild fear that could be put aside. Sounds like a job for the Discovery Channel.


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