One thing I love about living in the mid-Atlantic is enjoying the four distinct seasons. Fall happens to be my favorite. As cooler air creeps through my still-open windows, I know that college football games on the TV will soon replace the symphony of crickets. I'll begin incorporating remnants of fresh tomatoes and beautiful zucchini into a hot soup simmering on the stove. It will be time to cut down the butterfly garden and begin raking leaves.
While I'll miss summer, I find comfort in knowing it will roll around again next year. In recent months, though, I've learned that some symbols of summer-and building blocks for the Earth's fragile web of life-may be in jeopardy.
Take bats. Bats kick off the summer when they emerge from hibernation after a six-month nap. For me, they represent creatures that I appreciate ... from a distance! Last summer, I tried to mask my sentiments as I lay in the hammock with my kids, watching these critters dart throughout the tall trees as daylight faded away. As my daughter gave them each a name, I talked about their significant role in nature-most importantly, their ability to eat more than 1,000 mosquitoes and other insects each night.
As I shared this information, I wondered to myself what would happen if the bats disappeared. Unfortunately, I wasn't daydreaming.
This became a real concern over the last two years after biologists found tens of thousands of sick, dying and dead bats in and around caves and mines in eastern and upstate New York, Vermont, western Massachusetts and northwestern Connecticut. Even more recently, unusually high numbers of dead or dying bats were reported near summer roosts outside of winter hibernation spots.
According to scientists, little brown bats, northern long-eared and small-footed bats, eastern pipstrelle and endangered Indiana bats have been afflicted with a mysterious "white-nose syndrome" aptly named after halos of white fungus observed around their faces.
It's a situation the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has referred to as "an ecological disaster in the making" as losses have far exceeded the reproductive pace of one pup per female per year.
Since the discovery, scientists have been scrambling to identify the cause of the disease as they cast a broader net to determine its geographical scope. Possibilities include an unknown pathogen or virus, disrupted patterns caused by climate change, and environmental toxins such as pesticides and insecticides.
Sound familiar? Maybe because the same possibilities have also been mentioned in relation to recent declines in another summer creature I revere from a distance, honeybees. During the winter of 2006-2007, beekeepers began to report unusually high losses of hives. Many of the collapsed colonies reported symptoms inconsistent with any known causes of honeybee death.
This was troubling from both ecological and economic perspectives as honeybees pollinate a significant portion of the human diet and billions of dollars in crops each year.
Joining the bats and the bees might be fireflies-also known as glowworms or lightning bugs. While most stories are anecdotal, the local paper recently featured an article about tour guides in Thailand who've found themselves rowing farther and farther down the Mae Klong River near Ban Lomtuan, near Bangkok, to find trees lit up with the thousands of magical creatures symbolizing their city. The guides claim that populations have drastically declined in recent years, a phenomenon that recently drew more than 1,000 entomologists and biologists to Thailand for an international symposium on the topic.
In addition to holding a special place in many hearts, fireflies no doubt serve a purpose in our complex food chain, even it if isn't as obvious as mosquito control or pollination.
Could it be coincidence, or a commonality, that brings these disparate issues together? Whether global warming, pesticide use, the introduction of new pathogens or a combination of them all, I suspect some trends. The life cycles of these symbols of summer have been disturbed and we need to pay attention.
Maybe that's why I've enjoyed listening to the crickets more than usual this year. They arrive after the bats, bees and fireflies. I listen to them through the window at night, on the way to pick my son up at school and while doing yard work. While I haven't caught wind of any news about the crickets, I'm learning not to take their song for granted. I hope to hear them again next summer.