Weather Watch

I was reminded why I love bats as thousands of termites took to the air on my evening walk

A sharp ridge of high pressure over the West Coast produced northeasterly (offshore) winds, clear skies and warm to hot temperatures throughout much of California on Friday and Saturday.

The San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport hit 100 degrees Friday. The last time San Luis Obispo reached triple-digits levels was on July 6, 2018, when the temperature topped out at 102. The record high for San Luis Obispo for Sept. 13 is 101 set back in 1948. Santa Maria also just missed breaking its record for Sept. 13 by reaching 97 degrees, just one degree short of the record of 98 set back in 1971.

Many beach communities that are typically cool saw temperatures reaching into the 80s, 90s and even into the 100s. Big Sur reported 98 degrees, while Monterey saw a high of 89. Santa Cruz, much like San Luis Obispo, hit 100 degrees. The record high for Santa Cruz on Sept. 13 is 102 set back in 1971.

Uncharacteristically, the temperatures remained in the 80s well into the night in many beach communities that day.

I took our family dog for a walk on Friday evening, and the temperature was 84 degrees in Los Osos. As twilight approached, we came across an old Monterey Pine tree stump where hundreds of western drywood (Kalotermitidae) termites were emerging from a single spot between the bark and the wood like alien creatures in a nightmarish science fiction film and flew away. After their short flight, they shed their wings and crawl around to find a mate.

Historically, they’ve built their colonies in the deadwood of California oak woodlands and other types of tress and naturally tree stumps and logs. Unfortunately, they can also build their settlements in the structural lumber of people’s homes and even furniture.

Over the years, they have expanded from the Western United States all the way to the East Coast mostly transported by infested furniture. Added by the rise of global temperatures, they have been seen in upstate New York.

Three types of western drywood termites exist in each colony, the alate, soldier and worker. The alates are the swarmers that fly off to reproduce and create new settlements.

“The alate group swarms in late September through November in Central and Southern California on warmer days with the air temperatures between 80 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit,” according to the Florida Department of Agriculture.

On Friday evening, the winds were dead calm in Los Osos, and as the termites took wing, they went straight up in the partially lighted sky as the sun disappeared below the horizon.

As I looked toward the sky, I saw two big brown bats (Eptesicus fuscus) feeding on the slow-flying termites, then several little brown bats (Myotis lucifugus) appeared out of nowhere. These mouse-eared microbats quickly dispatched the alates on the wing as they emerge from the tree stump. The bats used echolocation to catch their prey, changing directions in a microsecond, almost too fast to see as they crisscrossed each other. Bats are the only true flying mammals on the planet.

Even though bats have been demonized in horror movies, I love them. There are more than 1,200 bat species found throughout the world. In fact, bats make up a quarter of all mammal species on the planet!

There are around 25 species in California. Most of them eat insects, including flies, gnats, disease-carrying mosquitoes and some of the most damaging agricultural pests known to man.

Just about every morning, as I walk out my front door during summer and fall, I notice bits and pieces of Jerusalem crickets on our porch that have been disregarded like bones from chicken wings.

The culprit is a 5-inch-long, lightly colored pallid bat (Antrozous pallidus) with enormous ears and relatively large eyes. Unlike other species of bats, these bats feed mostly on ground-dwelling arthropods such as scorpions.

On the hunt, they usually fly a few feet off the ground either using echolocation or just listening to locate their food. After they catch their prey, they often carry it to their night roost to eat it.

During the summer months, they can eat up to half of their body weight in food each night. Judging by the number of half-eaten bug parts on our home’s doorstep, I can certainly verify that statistic.

A single little brown bat can consume an average of 1,000-3,000 insects in just one night; they can capture 600 mosquitoes in just an hour! Bats help to fertilize crops with their guano, pollinate plants and some disperse seeds.

To say they’re beneficial to the environment would be an understatement. Many scientists believe they are essential, like honeybees, to our survival.

Unfortunately, many species across the United States are endangered, threatened or vulnerable. The decline in bat populations is probably because of multiple causes, including habitat loss and climate change. However, east of the Rocky Mountains, disease is the primary culprit. A fungus that causes white-nose syndrome has killed significant numbers of bats.

John Lindsey’s column is special to The Tribune. He is PG&E’s Diablo Canyon marine meteorologist and a media relations representative. Email him at pgeweather@pge.com or follow him on Twitter: @PGE_John.
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