Italians recruit bats to take sting out of summer
By Michael Day in Milan

Monday, 21 June 2010

Italians are turning to one of nature's most misunderstood creatures to save them from the mosquitoes which plaque the country in the summer months.

Bat nesting boxes have been flying off the shelves of Italian supermarkets as people try to encourage the insect-eating mammals to move in ? and spare them sleepless nights.

The Coop chain of supermarkets said last week that it had sold more than 12,000 bat boxes at ?25 each since they went on sale at 160 of its stores in April.

One bat can consume 10,000 insects in one night, of which around 2,000 will be mosquitoes, according to Paolo Agnelli of Florence's Museum of Natural History. He added that relying on bats would allow people to dispense with toxic chemical insecticides that could kill bees and butterflies.

Authorities in the city of Modena hope that bats can stop the onslaught of the tiger mosquito, which in addition to tormenting millions of Italians since it arrived uninvited from the Far East 20 years ago, has also infected hundreds with the serious viral disease chikungunya fever.

The city is installing as many nesting boxes for bats as it can in order to reduce the number of blood-sucking insects.

Council workers place the bat boxes in quiet, dark, south-facing sites that bats prefer for rearing young in the spring months.

"We were trying to think of what we could do to exploit their natural predators, and so we thought of bats," said Modena's environment councillor Simona Arletti. "Until now the measures against mosquitoes have just been based on prevention, in the sense citizens have been told to get rid of stagnant water."

Following Modena's lead, Rome, Venice and Treviso are also installing as many nesting boxes for bats as they can.

It's not surprising that people are willing to try anything in the Po River Valley, a huge chunk of northern Italy that runs from the Western Alps across to the Adriatic. The area is marked by hot, damp summers which see mosquitoes flourish.

But it was the arrival of the tiger variety from south-east Asia in 1990 that really raised the stakes in the ritual summer battle. In 2007 tiger mosquitoes caused an outbreak of chikungunya fever in and around Ravenna, a city not far from Modena. One elderly victim died from the disease.

The eminent Italian zoologist and animal behaviour expert Danilo Mainardi, writing in Corriere della Sera, hailed the new found respect for bats as a harmless and environment-friendly means of pest control. "It would be wonderful if, finally, bats started to enjoy our help and good will," he said.