In the movies, bats dart like ugly portents of evil in the shadows above the heads of terrified humans.

But in the backyard of a growing number of county residents, these same bats fly gently in and out of special "bat houses" put up just to entice them to visit.

It's all perspective, says bat enthusiast Frank Branchini, director of the county Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Where once bats were on the level ofvermin, he says, now they're welcomed as useful -- even attractive -- in the homeowner's battle against bugs.

Says Guy Hodge, a staff naturalist with the Humane Society of the United States, "Bats are very trendy. When you go into garden stores, you're very likely to see bat houses on shelves next to bird houses. That wasn't true 10 years ago. People are starting to understand that bats are not the hideous creatures of myth."

Branchini's interest in bats comes from moving to a home where there were bats.

"I had all the standard misconceptionsabout bats as these terrible creatures. But there were bats flying overhead -- and they were neat. They were beautiful. It piqued my curiousity."

The county SPCA is sponsoring a lecture by Hodge on Saturday, July 20.

Says Hodge,"Bats are the major predator of night-flying insects. We will emphasize the fact that they do provide a very important and beneficial role in the urban environment."

The free lecture will be 7:30 p.m. atthe SPCA Volunteer and Education Center, 1815 Bay Ridge Ave. in Annapolis.

"We will be dispelling the long-heldmyths that bats are blind; that they fly into your hair; that they are Typhoid Marys of the animal world; that they can carry rabies without showing any symptomsof the disease," Hodge says.

He says if a bat is flying, it's healthy. A rabid bat would be on the ground.

Hodge will bring an electric bat detector to the lecture so participants can hear the sounds bats make.

"Bats transmit ultrasonic frequencies both to communicate with each other and to locate flying insects," he says. "Thisdevice enables us to tune in on frequencies and convert them to an audiblesound the audience will be able to hear."

Also at the lecture, Hodge will toss carrots cut in insect-size pieces into the air for the bat to catch and eat.

Growing environmental awareness is one reason bats are more attractive to home gardeners these days, Hodge says. Many home gardeners are reluctant to use pesticides for fear of harming children and pets. Bats, as nocturnal insectivores, are a natural way to keep away troublesome insects.

To attract bats to your home,you can build a bat house, or you can buy one at county shops, including the SPCA Shelter.

"It's like a bird house, only it's designedfor bats," explains Branchini. "There's an opening down at bottom instead of up at the top."

The SPCA shelter's bat houses sell for $30. Made of rustic cedar, they are about 4-by-4-by-9 inches.

Hodge recommends a few tricks to make the bat houses effective: Place the house as high as possible in a tree and attract bats by scent.

"Batare social creatures. They seek other bats by the odor of bat droppings, or guano. One of the best ways to get bats to take up residence is to spread guano on the ground beneath your bat house."

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