On a trip to Egypt in the 1980s, Jim Buzbee, a software engineer, was mesmerized as his family sailed down the calm, slow Nile. The sun began to set over palm trees and sand dunes, and he could hear a distant call to prayer. “And as you looked closely over the water, you could see them—bats, silently darting and swooping, picking off the insects that came out as the sun went down,” Buzbee says. “And you also realized that they were everywhere. Near and far, sometimes close enough to the boat to reach out and touch. Silent and graceful.”

And so began Buzbee’s love affair with bats. Years after his trip, and much to his wife’s dismay, he embarked on his own batty project: building bat houses at his home in Colorado, finessing the design to lure nocturnal flyers to his neighborhood.

These days, homeowners nationwide are following Buzbee’s example. In 2002, a Michigan Boy Scouts troop’s handmade bat houses were so popular that the troop was overwhelmed with requests to make more. Companies are peddling premade “bat hotels” that can be attached to homes or mounted on poles. And many people are hand-crafting homes to attract Chiroptera (from the Greek words for “hand wing”) to their backyards.

And no wonder: The much-maligned bat eats up to half its body weight in mosquitoes and other bugs nightly. And counter to what the myths say, bats really don’t attack humans, get caught in hair, or turn into blood-crazed vampires.

Farmers are also turning to bats to battle bugs, help pollination, and fertilize crops. In southern states, the high-flying Mexican free-tailed bats gobble up moths before they infest cotton, corn, and pecans. “Bats are amazing nocturnal insect eaters,” says Mylea Bayless, a conservation biologist and artificial roosts specialist for Bat Conservation International, an Austin, Texas–based nonprofit.

“Back in the old days, farmers thought they were vampires,” says James Rogers, who owns batcasa.com, an Orlando, Florida–based bat house retailer. “They killed the bats, and then all their crops were infested. Now, farmers embrace them. Let Mother Nature do her thing, and things will take care of themselves.”

Their waste, or guano, is also a powerful fertilizer. “It gives that old-fashioned taste to tomatoes,” says Rogers. “Synthetic fertilizers, petrochemicals—they wrap around the roots, crystallize, and lock out nutrients, so people throw more fertilizer on their plants. Bat guano cleanses that stuff off.”

Bats are everywhere, even if you rarely see them; they make up 20 percent of the world’s mammal species. North American bats have a lifespan of 10 to 15 years, and they migrate seasonally, either far south or to hibernate in a nearby cave. Most bat species in the U.S. have two feeding periods each night, and mother bats typically return home between feedings to nurse their pups.

The country’s bat population dwindled during the 20th century as the night fliers were killed off superstitiously, and as development encroached on their caves and old-growth forest habitats. (Some species remain in decline today.) Attempts to lure bats back to farms and backyards were largely unsuccessful until the late 1980s, when Bat Conservation developed a successful bat-house model. Today there are “thousands and thousands” of bat houses in use, says Merlin Tuttle, the group’s founder and co-author of  The Bat House Builder’s Handbook.

Rogers, one of more than 30 builders certified through Tuttle’s organization, makes bat houses in his garage that sell from $60 to $180. But you can easily build your own—just follow the guidelines from the experts (see sidebar). Keep in mind that bat houses aren’t recommended for areas where small children play, because they could pick up a fallen pup.

Homeowners who’ve put up bat houses have been more than pleased with the results. Angelo Toscano installed one six years ago at his home in Sagaponack, New York, where mosquitoes were once so thick that his family couldn’t eat on the patio. Each year there were fewer mosquitoes. “And now we hardly notice any,” Toscano says. Now they regularly dine al fresco, and three of his neighbors have erected bat houses as well. “At night we see the bats flying around, so we know they’re there,” he says. “They’re not scary or anything…but they are a little witchy.”

Story by Lori Hall Steele. This article originally appeared in Plenty in June 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007