Wanda Freeland is a master gardener who has become passionate about bats.
She believes the rest of the Coast should be, too, since she realized they eat mosquitoes by the thousands. The little flying mammals also eat moths, night fliers that can ruin a garden.
Bats are sort of the night watchmen for bugs, and she believes myths about bats have kept them from widespread acceptance.
“You have to get over the mentality that they’ll get in your hair, that they’re blood suckers or that they’re rabid,” she said.
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She’s afraid such myths are a hindrance to her cause. For the most part, bats avoid people. If you see one sick or injured, don’t go near it.
“You don’t have them as house pets,” she said. “but you should have a bat house in the yard.”
You won’t encounter them. Unless you’re observant, you won’t even notice them coming out to feed at dusk.
Tim Lockley, wildlife biologist and entomologist
She believes there should be a bat house in every yard on the Coast.
Bats are also pollinators and seed dispersers. Miami Beach is considering them as a mosquito-gobbling weapon against the Zika virus.
Society is quick to throw chemicals at a problem, Freeland said. She has pleaded with her county supervisor to consider more natural ways of mosquito control than nightly spraying. Encouraging bats and dragonflies could be part of that, she said.
She’s setting up a Facebook page. She’s contacted the Sun Herald. If you go to the Ocean Springs Fresh Market in the parking lot around the depot at the entrance to the city on Washington Avenue, she’ll tell you about bats. The Fresh Market is open Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
She’s a member of the local Master Gardener Association, which has taken up the cause of bat education with her. The group has a table at the Fresh Market on the last Saturday of each month. There will be handouts and a place to display Freeland’s printed PowerPoint presentation.
She also persuaded craftsman Terry Thelen to add bat houses to the array of wooden bird houses he sells at the Fresh Market. He built five or six and she bought half his stock. So he’s making more.
“If I got him into making them, I needed to support him,” she said of her purchases.
She knows of others who build bat houses and at least one who sells them. The more the better, she said.
“We’re at the beginning of the movement,” Freeland said.
What is a bat house?
Bat houses look almost flat. The wide boards are set slightly apart for the bats to crawl into.
Thelen makes his from cedar fencing. The boards are grooved to help the bats climb inside. The houses are about 18 inches wide and 24 to 36 inches long and just a few inches deep.
They need to be placed at least 12 feet off the ground (15 to 20 feet is best) — mounting poles and stone or brick buildings are good. Trees are not the best option but still doable.
Location is important. Bat houses work best within a quarter-mile of a body of water. Forest cover is good.
Bat houses can be small or big and elaborate double-deckers.
It’s important that the back and sides be sealed and have a slot in the bottom for bats to enter and nest or roost. They gather to share body heat.
Basically, it’s providing a cave for them, a dark space.
Tending the garden
Freeland, 61, lives on 10 acres not far off Seaman Road in Latimer in Jackson County.
She’s an organic gardener who has roots in generations of natural gardening. Her mother had a garden to help feed the family, as did her grandmother.
She has spent seasons cultivating ways to keep her crops pest-free. Bats just happen to be one of her new favorites.
Becoming a master gardener with the Mississippi State University Extension Service was a big accomplishment for her. She earned the designation this year, but she has always sought nature and natural remedies to fit into her back-to-nature lifestyle.
Master Gardener is a program that provides intensive horticultural training to people who then volunteer in their communities by giving lectures, creating gardens, conducting research and many other projects, according to the website.
So now Freeland is volunteering, and advocating for bats is part of that. Though she’s never held one, she’d like to.
Bats are beneficial
Tim Lockley, a retired wildlife biologist and entomologist on the Coast, says bats are beneficial and conservation is a good idea.
He said the beauty of having them around is they’re active at night.
“Seldom anyone runs across a live bat,” he said. “If you do, don’t get near it. It could be diseased. But they don’t fly at you. They try to avoid you.”
They stay high and out of the way. Even their boxes are high.
“You won’t encounter them,” Lockley said, even if you have a bat house in the yard. “Unless you’re observant, you won’t even notice them coming out to feed at dusk.”