The Bats and the Bees

Population crashes, the press, and the “Holocene extinction”

With all the media coverage of the crash in honeybee populations over the last two years, and in light of the wave of stories about a potential crab-and-shark invasion of the Antarctic shelf (and subsequent population extinctions), it’s surprising to see another story that hasn’t made greater headway in national news: something called “white-nose syndrome” is cutting into bat populations across the northeast with the potential to decimate entire colonies.

The syndrome, which seems to be associated with a ring of white fungus that forms on the snouts of the animals, killed 8,000 to 11,000 bats last year—and is spreading. It is not clear if the fungus is a cause or symptom of the syndrome. But bats with the fungus appear to lose their fat reserves much faster than those without the fungus, and many die well before they are supposed to emerge from hibernation.

No one seems to know what causes the disease, where it came from, or how this could play out. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? This is starting to look a lot like the early stages of the honeybee die off.

On January 30, The Burlington Free-Press in Vermont reported that “State and federal wildlife agencies need the assistance of the caving and spelunking community to help limit the spread of a new disease that has killed thousands of hibernating bats.” A day later, white-nose syndrome showed up on The Great Beyond, a blog run by the publisher of the journal Nature.

Then the Associated Press’s Michael Hill wrote a piece headlined, “Bat Deaths in U.S. Northeast Baffle Experts,” and the story looked like it might go wide. National Geographic News picked up the AP piece on February 2 (and provided a link to a story from September 2007 on the bee colony collapse) saying that the syndrome had spread to nine bat hibernating sites in the northeast—and that in one of the first caves where the syndrome was found, the population of bats dropped from 15,000 to 1,500 over the course of two years. That’s a 90 percent decline.

The bat story had seemed to cool off a bit until this past week when it has lately reemerged in the regional press. New England news outlets like Vermont’s Rutland Herald are reporting with renewed fervor about the possibility of white-nose syndrome having a major impact on the endangered Indiana bat:

The threats to endangered bats from white-nose syndrome are severe, widespread and immediate, and failure to undertake instant action could cause these species to go extinct,” stated the petition filed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

And just yesterday, Ars Technica, the online news outlet mostly known for reporting on Apple Inc. and technology ran a white-nose syndrome piece using the exaggerated, but acceptably apropos phrase, “Holocene extinction”:

Dodos, quaggas, passenger pigeons, frogs, bees, coral. You can now add bats to that list. Yes, the Holocene extinction carries on unabated, and the latest victims that may be headed for extinction reside in bat colonies in the northeastern United States, centered around New York and Vermont.

White-nose syndrome raises important points about covering the complicated and often poorly understood collapse of animal populations or ecological systems. What questions do reporters need to ask? What “syndrome” stories are too unsubstantiated? At what point do the early regional symptoms of a larger problem indicate the need for national coverage?

When the bee collapse was first reported, stories were all over the place. While some outlets initially took it with just a passing interest, others proclaimed the end of nature. Theories were coming out of the woodwork, and the media’s ability to filter fact from probable fiction seemed to disappear. (We would do well to remember that vacuous story about cell-phone use being linked to the bee deaths, and the International Herald Tribune’s solid account of that mishap.)

But population collapse in ecological systems is a serious issue. Just this past week, writer Parija B. Kavilanz reported that the ice cream-maker Haagen-Dazs has been sounding the alarm that without honey bees our agricultural system is in big trouble:

That’s because, according to Haagen-Dazs, one-third of the U.S. food supply—including a variety of fruits, vegetables and even nuts—depends on pollination from bees.

A few stories, including the AP’s, made the connection to honeybee colony collapse—and extra kudos to those who pointed out that bats, like bees, are important for agricultural production (Like Beth Daley at the Boston Globe). Bats are the natural predators of many of the insects that eat crops, and if bats disappear an already taxed agricultural system could be in more trouble.

It’s too early to predict how the white-nose syndrome, and concomitant coverage, will burnout or intensify. So far the coverage has been light, but solid, and there are a lot of tempting ingredients in play: a mysterious die-off, a seemingly inconsequential animal that actually is actually quite crucial, and a primed readership.

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Russ Juskalian is a contributor to The Observatory and a freelance writer.