Hate Mosquitoes? Consider a Bat House! Fight Insect-Borne Illness by Partnering with Furry Fliers

The National Weather Service reported last week that 35 trillion gallons of water fell in the state of Texas during the month of May. The ground is soaked for what may well be weeks to come, our bayous have swollen far beyond their usual limits and residents in Harris and Ft. Bend counties continue to pick up the pieces after flooding pushed them from their homes. We know what 35 trillion gallons looks like in terms of disrupting the lives of Texans, but it’s difficult to imagine just exactly how much that is.

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That’s a lot of water…

NBC’s Nelson Hsu put together a graphic breaking down the staggering amount of water that drenched our state — evenly distributed and dropped all at once, it’s enough to cover Texas in eight inches of water; enough to fill California’s 200 surface reservoirs to thrice their capacity, enough to cover Manhattan four times, and if we had caught all that rainwater and spread it across the globe, the world’s population would have a supply of 64 ounces of water for at least the next 27 years. And most people fail the eight-glasses-a-day challenge!

With Zika virus making headlines in the aftermath of May’s downpour, our soaking city seems like prime real estate for ground zero of the next outbreak. But fear not. Mosquitoes are ubiquitous, that’s true, but they’re easy enough to fight. They fly at less than 1.5 miles an hour, with a typical range of only about 300 feet in still weather. Their strength is in their numbers, not their speed — kind of like zombies.

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America’s worst enemy, but to bats, they’re food for thought.

First, there have as yet been no locally-acquired cases of Zika virus in the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control; the 618 reported cases were all travel-associated. It’s also important to understand that while Zika poses a serious threat to developing infants during pregnancy, the disease presents no more than a few days of flu-like symptoms in adults and children.

Second, since mosquitoes are the main vector of Zika, the best way to directly combat them is to wear insect repellent. Sure it smells nasty, but Off! and other spray-on products could save you from serious symptoms and the awful itching of the world’s most annoying insect.

Third, you can stop mosquitoes from breeding by eliminating areas of shallow, stagnant water. Take a lesson from the residents of Flamingo, Fla., a community in the Everglades and home to one of the most voracious populations of mosquitoes: Get rid of aluminum cans, bottles and plastic containers, store recycling in plastic bags, don’t let water accumulate in garbage can lids or empty garbage cans, flush bird baths and plant trays twice a week, store pet food and water bowls indoors when Fido and Felix aren’t using them, and use mosquito “dunks” in areas that can’t be drained. These dunks utilize bacteria that consume mosquito larvae but leave fish and other animals unharmed.

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(Yawn!!!) It it dusk yet? I’m hungry for mosquito breakfast.

For the long term, my favorite method of laying waste to mosquitoes involves enlisting the assistance of another population of flying creatures — by hanging bat houses! The Mexican free-tailed bat (Tadarida brasiliensis) is a hardy, numerous species (and they’re super cute), but their propensity to roost in a few huge colonies, like those you can find under bridges in Austin and Houston, leaves them vulnerable to habitat loss. Hanging one or two bat houses around your home keeps these adorable flying mammals close by, which means far fewer insects.

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Vote Bat for Harris County Mosquito Exterminator! I eat bugs so they don’t eat you!

While female mosquitoes have an insatiable appetite for blood, which they need to lay their eggs, bats have an equally ravenous hunger for the insects. A single bat can eat around 1,000 mosquitoes every night, and a single small bat house offers shelter for up to 25 bats. Do the math with me — two shelters is 50 bats, which could eat a total of 50,000 mosquitoes a night or 350,000 mosquitoes a week. That’s not just the mosquitoes around your house; that’s probably every mosquito on the block. If you convince your neighbors to hang houses, too, you could form a bat colony coalition for an even more formidable mosquito-fighting force.

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When we have a problem, we hug it out. #justbattythings

The capacity of a bat house, of course, is also adjustable according to its size. Many bat house companies, like P & S Country Crafts or Habitat For Bats offer a variety of dimensions available for purchase, or you can build one yourself. It’s an easy enough project to knock out in your garage in a few days, and an even easier project to hang up a pre-made one. Each house promotes an environmentally-friendly semi-symbiotic relationship with our adorable bat friends, which stay long enough to raise their pups and then move on when the weather cools down. And by this time, the mosquitoes will have disappeared for the season, as well.

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Bat houses by www.pscountrycrafts.com, mounted on a pole. Bat houses can also be attached to the sides of houses or barns. Trees are not ideal for bat house mounting.

So do what you can to fight mosquitoes, but consider teaming up with the bats, our neighborhood insect-fighting superheroes. Check out Bat Conservation International for more information on ways to help these furry fliers.

Visit the Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife at the Houston Museum of Natural Science to learn more about bats and other native species in need of conservation.

Because That’s How You Get Ants: Flooding Causes Displaced Critters to Run for Shelter, Too

Most of you probably didn’t make it in to work today, and after my short drive to the Houston Museum of Natural Science this morning, I would say that was a good call. There were plenty of cars stalled in intersections, and I watched a sixteen-wheeler make a U-turn on 288 because the water level was too high under an overpass.  

Expensive car repairs aren’t the only reason to stay home during the flash floods we periodically experience. When the water rises, it carries with it everything that is buoyant.  This could be trash that was thrown out a car window, chemicals that spilled from a car during an accident or were poured down the drain, or the critters that live under the soil and in the bushes.

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One of the most awesome and horrifying things you will hopefully never see during a flash flood is a raft of fire ants. These little guys instinctively know how to survive the catastrophic destruction of their home. They are light enough to float individually, but they stick together. This allows the ants at the base to hold up those above the water for a while. The roiling ball of ants turns constantly to allow every member of the ball to get a rest and to get enough oxygen. The ants at the edge are constantly looking for something dry on which they can cling. The instant they find a tree or a street sign, up everyone goes.

This is also horrific because sometimes that thing is you.

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The ants, which are pretty upset at this point, will absolutely swarm you if you touch this little ball of hate. They will get to the highest point they can and then they will latch on.  With their piercing mouth parts. 

So, my friends. While I applaud an interest in the out-of-doors and making new friends, please wait until the city isn’t flooded to engage in both. Because sometimes you pick your friends…

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…and sometimes they pick you!

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Editor’s Note: Learn more about the behavior of ants and other insects at the Brown Hall of Entomology in the Cockrell Butterfly Center. (When the floodwaters recede, of course.)

Hurricane Patricia breaks records and threatens Mexico and Texas

In only 24 hours, the strongest hurricane on record was born. Hurricane Patricia, which dumped devastating rains over Central Mexico and blasted 200 mile-per-hour sustained winds Friday evening and Saturday morning, had a central pressure two millibars lower than Hurricane Wilma, the previous record holder. Wilma struck the Yucatan Peninsula and moved on to the Texas coast during the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season in the same oceanic conditions that brought Rita and Katrina. The best that Texas meteorologists could say of Patricia is thank goodness it was in the Pacific, and made landfall in a relatively rural area.

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As the worst of Patricia struck an area near Cuixmala and moved inland over the weekend, the storm was expected to present catastrophic conditions to a major swath of the Pacific Mexican coast. Communities near the ocean and just inland were susceptible to a tremendous flash flooding threat from a projected downpour of 10 to 12 inches of rain, widespread power outages and downed trees. Rainfall in the mountains was expected to collect in valleys and rush downhill to low-lying areas, swelling waterways further.

weatherHowever, CNN reports that Mexico dodged a bullet. Tourists and poor communities were evacuated well ahead of the storm, and in spite of the threat of devastation, there were no reported deaths. When Patricia made landfall, the storm rapidly weakened as it crossed the Sierra Madre, and meteorologists downgraded its status to a low pressure system with wind speeds averaging 35 miles per hour. Storms this strong usually bring down communication infrastructure that must be rebuilt, said David Paul, KHOU-11 Chief Meteorologist.

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Source: The Weather Channel

Texas didn’t see hurricane conditions, but residents throughout the state received heavy rainfall. As the storm crossed the mountains and its energy was pushed further up into the atmosphere, it carried with it weekend rainfall totals averaging 12 inches for the state. West and Central Texas endured flooding conditions Friday morning and areas from Victoria to San Antonio and further north into Austin, Waco and Dallas witnessed widespread heavy rainfall, all caused by the disturbance of Patricia’s forward march.

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By the time the storm reached the U.S., its power was significantly weakened. For Houston, Patricia meant flash flooding conditions. The city saw more than seven inches of rain over the rest of the weekend. Communities along the coast experienced strong, gale-force winds and an increase in coastal flooding threat.

“The major threats are flooding,” Paul said. “Because it will still have a tremendous amount of vorticity or twist, there will be a tornado threat that will last through Sunday and into early Monday.”

With a storm this powerful, the best advice is to get out of the way. Upwards of 50,000 people in Mexico evacuated, and still more were affected by dangerous conditions.

Scientifically speaking, Patricia was “a beauty,” Paul said. It had a strong, well-defined eyewall and formed in ideal conditions.

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“We’re in an El Niño year, and it’s the strongest ever measured,” Paul said. “The sea surface temperatures are above normal, so the storm has plenty of warm water (to fuel it). What has allowed Patricia to become so strong is a lack of wind shear. The upper-level winds were perfect for tropical storm development. No wind shear allows it to ‘bomb out.’ That’s a term we use to mean strengthening rapidly. It went from 65 mile-an-hour winds to a 160-mile-an-hour Category 5 hurricane in 24 hours!”

Imagine poking your head out of an Indy 500 race car shooting down the track. That’s what it’s like to feel sustained winds of 200 mph. Structures in its path, even those on foundations are all likely to have been flattened.

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Comparing historical data from Galveston, meteorologists believe the hurricane that laid ruin to the Texas coast in 1900 was probably a Category 4. Winds reached between 140 and 145 miles an hour in that storm, and Hurricane Katrina topped out at 175 mph. At 200 mph, Patricia seems to defy the five-category Saffir—Simpson Scale with its outstanding wind speed, and even Paul admits this storm may require its own category, but that doesn’t mean it’s the strongest that could ever have occurred.

 “We don’t have a special section to put it in, but we’ve only been measuring these hurricanes since about the 1970s,” Paul said. “There may have been stronger ones.”

That said, there are some other distinctions to make. The high winds only occur at the eyewall, diminishing further out. And Paul hesitated to use the storm’s historical strength as evidence of any significant global trends.

“I don’t see that. El Niño may be one of the factors, the warming of the Pacific waters a little above normal,” Paul said. “I just see this as a storm that got in the right place at the right time with the upper-level winds.”

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So should Americans be worried about hurricanes of Patricia’s magnitude forming in the Atlantic this season? Paul had an answer for that, too.

“We’re nearing the end of the season, but it doesn’t end until November 31. If you live on the coast, that’s the price. The price you pay is to be prepared for hurricanes to come along every once in a while.”

Residents of Texas and Mexico alike are urged to monitor the weather all weekend long using whatever resources are available. KHOU-11 will keep an eye on the storm 24/7 and will provide updates on its progress on Facebook, Twitter and on the Web.

Do not drive in flash flood conditions. If you must, take extreme caution. Remember to turn around, don’t drown. Get to higher ground.

When the storm has passed, learn more about how the weather is broadcast at the Houston Museum of Natural Science at the KHOU-11 Do the Weather with Chita Johnson exhibit.

Stay safe!

Zip on over to HMNS Sugar Land on Friday for a members-only viewing of Zula Patrol: Mission Weather

This weekend, explore the weather phenomena that rule our planet this Friday, April 26 at an exclusive members’ event at HMNS Sugar Land.

Learn all about the forces behind the weather with the Zula Patrol, an intergalactic band of fact-gatherers. Children’s crafts, refreshments and a cash bar for the chaperones will be available from 6 to 8:30 p.m.

Zula Patrol: Mission Weather opens at HMNS Sugar Land Feb. 8!While you’re here, check out Sugar Land’s brand new Paleo Hall — 5,000 square feet dedicated to major mounts (including a Triceratops and T. rex), an incredible selection of trilobites, detailed to-scale models and an animated prehistoric aquarium.

Fossilized in-ground StegosaurusThis event is likely to sell out; to reserve your tickets now, click here!