In January 1994, Ken Glover paced between the stilts of the University of Florida’s bat house, using a mirror to reflect sunlight into the darkness above.
The house was built to accommodate bats displaced from the campus stadiums, where their smell and proximity to spectators made them unwelcome. But for nearly three years, they had turned up their noses at the 16-by-16-foot structure. That morning, however, he spotted a single bat.
Glover had been UF’s pest control manager since 1990, but he didn’t see the bats as pests. Like a lot of people on campus, he was rooting for UF’s experiment to succeed, and not just because he was in charge of it. This lone bat suggested that things were about to change.
Today, UF’s bat house — and the bat barn that was built to accompany it in 2010 — shelters one of the world’s largest urban bat populations. The story of its success begins with a conflagration and ends with a tourist attraction, with ridicule, public protest and the intervention of two Florida governors along the way. This month, the bat village grew with the addition of another bat barn. With the original house crumbling, officials hope the resident bats will move from the original house into the new barn, a longer-lasting design that builds on what they’ve learned over the years. But as Glover and his boss Bill Properzio learned from the first bat house, bats don’t always take a hint.
The bat house began with a grease fire. On a Sunday afternoon in 1987, a deep fryer ignited in Johnson Hall, home to a campus cafeteria where future UF president Stephen C. O’Connell once waited tables. The fire gutted the 1912 building, including the attic where about 5,000 bats roosted. Many of them settled underneath the precast bleachers of UF’s track and field and tennis stadiums.
When Governor Bob Martinez’ visit to the Florida Relays was sullied by a close encounter, the University Athletic Association needed a solution. Entomology doctoral student Jackie Belwood proposed a massive bat house, and a donor stepped up to fund its construction. But would it work? Experts from Bat Conservation International weighed in, but Properzio and his team had to resort to educated guesses for the many decisions ahead, from where to place it to the arrangement of the plywood fins where the bats would roost.
“There was no precedent for building a bat house that large,” said Properzio, UF’s director of Environmental Health and Safety.
They built it, but the bats didn’t come…at least not at first.
Over three nights in September 1991, a bat removal expert from Wisconsin trapped about 3,000 stadium bats in wire cages, sealing off their former roosts with hardware cloth so they couldn’t get back in. Then the bats rode in a pickup truck to their new home on Museum Road. Released, they roosted in the new house, which had been scented with guano to maximize its appeal. At sunset, they flew out on their nightly rounds. They did not return.
In the months that followed, many of them adopted other campus buildings, where they played havoc with elevator equipment and air-conditioning systems, permeating classrooms and offices with the sinus-clearing aroma of their guano, urine and musk. (Fine Arts C had to be evacuated one day when the smell got into the ventilation system.) Over the next three years, Glover and his team trapped at least 1,000 bats and relocated them to the house, which they would promptly reject. In 1993, when Auburn University turned to UF for advice on its own bat problem, the Gainesville Sun jokingly suggested “a good deal on a hardly used bat house.”
“You can determine where bats will not live,” Glover said, “but you cannot determine where they will go.”
The team at Environmental Health and Safety didn’t give up. They shielded the interior of the house from sunlight and added concrete partition blocks that more closely resembled the bygone stadium digs. They covered the reflective wallboard so it didn’t interfere with echolocation and brought in more guano to make the house smell like home. Inside, a recording of the displaced colony’s own chirps and squeaks emanated from a tape player hooked up to a car battery.
Why was UF going to so much trouble for these quarter-ounce creatures? First, providing a place where they could live would preclude the effort and expense of removing them from places where they couldn’t. Second, their insect-eating prowess – up to 1,000 bugs each, every night – reduces pesticide use on campus and provides an ally in the prevention of mosquito-borne disease. Another factor was respect for bats’ role in the health of the ecosystem. (Killing the bats was never on the table, for the reasons above as well as their status as a protected species.)
Yet despite UF’s best efforts to make the bats feel at home, the only victory had been a two-week stay by seven bats in 1993 – more of a spring break trip than a relocation. On that January morning in 1994, though, the single volunteer started a movement. By February, Glover was regularly spotting a handful of occupants; by mid-March, more than 50. At the end of the month, with more than 200 in residence, Glover could smell the potent evidence of their presence. This time, it smelled like success.
The population grew exponentially from there, with babies born in the house for the first time the following year.
Sports Illustrated covered the house in 1996, pointing out that its capacity surpassed that of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. But the bat house’s challenges weren’t over. In 1998, more than 100 people turned out to oppose the planned construction of student housing on the site, which would have displaced the house. Representatives of the Florida Cabinet came to town to watch the nightly exodus and report back on the housing plan, which Governor Lawton Chiles and the Cabinet quashed – marking the second time a governor had shaped the bats’ fate.
Today’s colony of 350,000 includes Southeastern mouse-eared bats, evening bats and a subspecies of the Brazilian free-tailed bat. They devour more than a ton of insects each night, emerging to flit above the onlookers who amass at sundown to watch them, an experience TripAdvisor users rank as one of Gainesville’s top attractions. Fans who can’t view the outflight in person can watch the Florida Museum’s bat-cam livestream.
The addition of the first bat barn more than doubled capacity and incorporated design improvements to help it last longer, such as an open floor to keep it from becoming saturated, which led to a collapse in the original house in 2009. The 26-year-old house will eventually be demolished. But as Glover and Properzio learned the first time around, the bats will move in when they want to. The Division of Environmental Health and Safety will give the bats time to accept their new digs, and in accordance with state law, won’t disturb them or the original house while they’re birthing and raising their young this spring. There are no plans to trap them for relocation, only to rely on their curiosity and the new barn’s proximity to do the trick, as it did with the original barn.
Glover, who retired in 2014, is optimistic.
“I’m not concerned at all in the long run,” he said. “They’re always exploring new places to live.”
He’s equally confident about the bats’ power to win over skeptics at their nightly performances. With bats around the world under threat from habitat destruction, disease, hunting and extermination, they need all the friends they can get.
“Ignorance can give rise to fears and phobias,” Glover said. “I think this colony changes opinions about bats quite often. People from all over the world have learned about bats here. There’s a higher awareness and greater appreciation when people understand more about them.”
He has seen more than 100 people gathered in the evening to watch the outflight, sharing facts from the informational kiosks donated by an alumnus and marveling at the mid-air acrobatics.
“It’s an interesting wildlife experience you can’t just get anywhere,” he said. “It’s a way to see how wildlife can interact with humans – and as long as humans treat them with respect and keep at a distance, everybody’s better off for it.”