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Several hundred new housing units went up this summer on the Grand and Red Cedar rivers, in prime Lansing locations, without a City Council debate, public input or even a building permit.
How could that happen? Bats — the fantastic flying mammals who silently share the city with humans — excel at slipping through all kinds of cracks.
In early July, the last of four 20-foot-high bat boxes went up in four conspicuous locations along the Lansing River Trail. Each of them can hold from 100 to 500 bats, depending on the response to Lansing’s latest housing project.
If developers like Pat Gillespie, Harry Hepler or the Eydes were in charge, the project would have a trendy name, like The Roost. In lieu of branding, these boxes were lovingly decorated by kids from Joy Baldwin’s classes at Lansing’s Reach Art Studios.
In the hope of attracting young professional bats by providing the stifling darkness and summer heat they demand, a team from MSU’s student bat association used a paint-free Japanese technique called shou sugi ban on the exterior. Hunks of reclaimed cedar were charred with a roofing torch and then oiled up, insuring the housing will last for decades.
And there are other amenities. There’s no public art requirement for bat housing, but MSU Bat Association president Ryan Mosley thought art would be a good way to draw attention to the boxes. The new high-rise at the Brenke Fish Ladder is painted with exotic sea creatures, including an anglerfish. Geometric forms and matrixes grace the box behind the Impression 5 Museum. A box at the confluence of the Red Cedar and Grand rivers is a sort of bat ranch, in the form of a bull’s head with wooden horns. The easternmost of the four boxes, near the Potter Park Zoo, is decorated with moths, centipedes and other items bats love to eat.
Mosley got the idea to build the boxes while starting a community garden near his house on Porter Street a few years ago. While researching organic pest management, he was amazed to learn of the prodigious amounts of insects bats consume each day.
Until then, he hadn’t given the furry creatures much thought one way or the other. “There was one in my house one time and I kind of freaked out about it, but the more I learned about them, the more I fell in love with them,” Mosley said.
A horticulture major at MSU, Mosley was also impressed by bats’ inestimable value to the agricultural sector as pest managers, and even as pollinators.
Learning that a fungal plague called white nose syndrome was killing bats by the millions made Mosley more determined to raise awareness of bats’ crucial role in the ecosystem.
Peter Fowler, a veterinary student at MSU and Bat Association member, said major bat colonies in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula have been all but wiped out by the fungus.
“It used to take days to count the bats,” he said. “Not anymore.”
So far, Fowler said, colonies in the Lower Peninsula are holding their own, but the fungus is inexorably spreading across the nation.
Outreach projects like the Lansing boxes are inspired by the One Health model, a global movement linking human health with the health of the ecosystem. Mosley and Fowler started the Bat Association at MSU three years ago, using the One Health model as an inspiration.
The group is also lobbying for more humane treatment of bats, at MSU and across the state.
“Hopefully we can change the pest management policy of bats at MSU,” Mosley said. “They’re killing about 250 bats a year that they catch in buildings and euthanizing them.”
The student bat group has garnered a lot of interest. At a Bat Walk last fall, over 100 people prowled around Beale Gardens, where hundreds of bats set out to forage each dusk, plugged listening devices into their phones and eavesdropped on their echolocation blips and squeaks. There will be another walk this year, beginning 8 p.m. Sept. 4 at Beaumont Tower.
In the summer, bats split up into male and female colonies. In the fall, they come together to mate, find a warm spot (probably your attic) and hibernate.
“I’ve been in very few attics that don’t have signs that there have been bats there,” Fowler said. The Latin name of the big brown bat, Eptisicus fuscus, means “brown house flyer.”
“They’ve been evolving with us and living with us for a long time,” Fowler said.
Boxes won’t keep bats out of attics in winter, when all they do is sleep anyway, but they do draw them out of your house in summer, when they’re active and can do the most damage.
Once the Lansing Parks Department signed off on the bat house project, it was a simple matter for Fowler and his team to sink 4-by-4 support posts into post holes filled with concrete. The MSU Federal Credit Union donated the money for the expensive footings and support posts. The National Science Foundation’s Beacon Center for the Study of Evolution contributed money for the boxes and REACH Studio’s art supplies.
Hefting the heavy, 20-foot-tall boxes into place, was by far the hardest part of the project. Without a cherry picker, the team resorted to leaning the boxes on a ladder and gradually pushing the ladder closer to the support post, like the Marines at Iwo Jima, subjecting the man on the ladder to increasing stress — in more ways than one.
“We almost killed ourselves once or twice,” Fowler said.
Eben Gering, an MSU biology research associate, hopes the bat houses will help researchers gather crucial data on the number and habits of bats hanging around Lansing.
He’s also keen on blending art and science in more creative ways, and not just to make The Roost the place to be in Lansing this summer.
“All kinds of people go by these boxes on the River Trail,” Gering said. “More scientists and conservationists should think about the role art can play in what they’re doing. Art has the power to call attention to important interactions going on in the city around us.”
Bat Walk 2019
8 p.m. Wed., Sept. 4, and Thursday, Sept. 5
375 W. Circle Dr., East Lansing
Free, wheelchair accessible