Miami Beach Might Use Bats to Eat Zika Mosquitoes

This adorable little critter could be the last line of defense between you and the Zika virus.
This adorable little critter could be the last line of defense between you and the Zika virus.

Miami is at war with the Aedes aegpyti mosquito. Although minuscule, the tiny, zebra-striped bug is wreaking havoc on the area's economy through the Zika virus. Government officials have declared an all-out assault on the blood-suckers, but the county's first line of defense — the much-debated pesticide naled — might not be working well in Miami Beach.

In war, sometimes you need to get creative. And just in time for Halloween, Miami Beach Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez is proposing the city attract bats to the area in the hopes the spooky little mammals will gobble up as many mosquitoes as they can.

Rosen Gonzalez proposes the city build bat houses, which are small and look like birdhouses except with slit-shaped holes for the little winged members of the order Chiroptera.

The commissioner's proposed ordinance notes mixed results in using naled to kill mosquitoes and the fact that "bats can eat up to 1,000 mosquitos per hour and offer an environmentally friendly approach to mosquito control."

Rosen Gonzalez did not immediately return a call to her cell phone about the plan. The city commission will debate her ordinance at this week's meeting, and if the bill passes, the city would research the best spots to place bat houses and report back by November 9.

Miami-Dade County's naled usage has sparked protests at Miami Beach City Hall. The pesticide is part of an environmentally frowned-upon group of pesticides called organophosphates and is banned in the European Union. A host of environmental scientists have decried its use. Some of them warn that naled might cause birth defects and that, in some cases, the pesticide can degrade into a chemical called dichlorvos, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists as a possible carcinogen.

But the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the chemical is vital to fight the spread of Zika, and the EPA claims the chemical can be sprayed safely in small doses from planes. While Miami-Dade County Mosquito Control says naled has helped knock down the mosquito population in Wynwood, Dr. Phil Stoddard, the mayor of South Miami and a biologist at Florida International University, has released a study that says the pesticide did not work in Miami Beach.

After multiple rounds of aerial spraying, county officials found a new pool of Zika-positive mosquitoes September 23. Last week, Gov. Rick Scott announced a new zone of "active Zika transmission" in Little River and Little Haiti, thus renewing Miami's pesticide debate yet again.

Though naled is certainly controversial, bats, meanwhile, are adorable and can legally hang out wherever they want.

It apparently takes a lot of calories to fly around all day, and bats basically need to gobble mosquitoes and other tiny insects at a near-constant rate to maintain their energy level. After the town of North Hempstead, New York, on Long Island, installed bat houses to fight Zika in July, New Times half-jokingly mused that an army of bats might work as a solid line of defense against mosquitoes.

Most bat scientists agree that attracting bats to a mosquito-infested area definitely won't hurt, but caution that bats won't eradicate Zika alone because the creatures fly at night and Aedes mosquitoes fly during the day, which means the bats might not eat any Zika-carrying bugs at all.

Most bats are also highly sensitive to pesticides. The national group Bat Conservation International warns that aerially sprayed pesticides could kill any newly attracted bats.

But in mosquito-ravaged Florida, the idea isn't all that far-out. In 1929, real-estate developer Richard Clyde Perky built a 30-foot-tall bat house on Sugarloaf Key, near Key West, to help drive mosquitoes from the island. With the bugs gone, he hoped to turn the key into a tourist's paradise. After filling the tower with guano (bat poop) to attract the critters, he released a huge cloud of bats onto the key.

But they all just flew away, and not a single bat ever moved into the tower. It still stands empty today. (Turns out it can take bats up to a year to figure out that they can safely live inside bat houses.)

Regardless, people seem to have taken the recent suggestion to heart. After New Times published its initial piece about bat-related pest control, a middle-school Girl Scout in West Kendall, Michelle Moscoso, built three bat houses in her neighborhood as part of a scouting project.

For those who want to build bat houses on their own, the Moscoso family had one word of warning: Make sure the house faces north or south. If they face east or west, the sun will hit them, and you'll cook the bats inside.

Here's a copy of Commissioner Rosen Gonzalez's ordinance:


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