One evening a few years back Trout Boy (not his real name) and I were in a canoe on a sort of remote trout pond in northern Maine during the pond’s annual drake hatch. The drakes, a large species of Mayfly, were popping up on the surface of the pond after a desperate dash from the muddy bottom, hoping in their little buggy way to avoid the jaws of the trout who had been waiting all year for this banquet. The water boiled with the swirls of the gorging fish.
The drakes that managed to reach the surface fluttered off and headed for shore, where they would take refuge in the bushes and molt before their date-of-a-lifetime with the opposite sex. But even those that managed to achieve lift-off were not home free. The darkening sky was full of bats, and for a Little Brown Bat a big drake is a happy meal. TB and I were trying with scant success to catch the trout, our efforts impeded by two key factors: the lack of the proper fly imitation and a sky full of bats. We could not make a cast without our flyrods banging into a bat or three.
On another evening in a somewhat similar situation on the banks of the Rapid River, TB’s imitation was good enough to fool not a trout but a bat, who grabbed the fly in mid-cast. That required a brave but gingerly long-distance release by TB, who cut the leader and hoped the little bat could figure out how to shake the barbless hook.
As a boy I tossed pebbles into the sky at dusk to watch bats dart over to investigate the UFO and quickly determine that it was not edible. More recently I would step out of my camp at Upper Dam in the evening to watch the little brown bats fluttering about, gobbling up mosquitos by the thousands, and to thank them for their service.
We have not experienced evenings like that in quite a while. The bats are gone.
Where have they gone? An article in the PenBay Pilot last year noted that “Maine’s Little Brown Bat has seen a 97 percent decline in population.” Much of that loss has been due to a fungal infection, White Nose Syndrome, possibly imported from Europe by amateur cave explorers. Little Brown Bats have been placed on Maine’s Endangered Species list.
Bats generate irrational fears in us. We think of bats and we think of vampires, blood-drinkers, Halloween. But bats are some of our best friends. Not only do they eat mosquitos by the ton, they pollinate hundreds of varieties of fruits worldwide including bananas. Bats pollinate the agave plant, so next time you hoist a Margarita, drink to the bats and shout, Gracias a los murciélagos! if you can pronounce it. If you are accused of having bats in your belfry, maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
Now comes Michael McCarthy to tell us that it’s not only the bats we’re losing — it’s also the bugs. “Insect abundance has fallen by 75% over the last 27 years,” McCarthy writes, in the Guardian (of Britain). That’s worldwide! Human activity is the main cause (think pesticides, habitat loss). Bugs are essential to many different food chains, and without insects to eat many birds could starve; there have also been declines in populations of numerous bird species in recent decades. Again, human activity is blamed for much of the loss. We’re making a mess of things. Okay, bugs are pests, at times — but they pollinate like crazy. Think of honeybees, which have suffered steep declines in recent years. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that you can thank the bees for every third bite of food you eat. Ironically, honeybees have been enlisted in the service of Big Ag, but Big Ag’s widespread use of pesticides is the leading suspect in the decline of the bees.
I think about all this because I love to fish for trout, and trout fishing bereft of bats and bugs and birds and bees is, at the risk of being too alliterative, barren and bleak.