Three unassuming white structures on stilts are tucked away near University of Florida’s campus in Gainesville. If you’re not paying attention or looking toward students in hammocks next to Lake Alice across the street, you might miss it.
Though it’s not much to look at from the outside, those structures, each marked by a black, wooden bat, are home to the world’s largest bat colony living in manmade houses.
Upwards of 500,000 bats are estimated to live in the colony and eat about 2.5 billion insects in a single night.
The Brazilian free-tailed bat is the most common species occupying the houses, but the Southeastern bat and evening bat also take up residence in the Gainesville colony.
The first house was built in 1991 after a fire at historic Johnson Hall several years prior displaced a colony of bats. Without a home, they migrated to the bleachers of the university’s track and field stadium, where the animals proved to be a nuisance.
It took the bats more than three years to accept their new home and permanently move. In 2009, the internal structure of the house collapsed due to rotting and moisture from, well, bat droppings.
A rebuild of the original house began while a second structure, a bat barn, was constructed next door. The barn was finished in 2010 and bats took to it in just over a year, making it a welcome new addition to their colony in 2011.
A third house was built in 2017, but design issues have stood in the way of bats relocating.
On a recent Saturday evening, I checked out the swarming colony for myself. At least 70 or 80 visitors lined up along a wooden fence separating the houses from the road.
Paul Ramey, assistant director of marketing and public relations for the Florida Museum of Natural History, said curiosity about bats draws people in from far and wide, sometimes bringing international visitors to Gainesville.
“I mean, they’re the only flying mammal. They’re really just incredible,” Ramey said. “They’re the most common mammal in the world — 20-25 percent of mammals are bats. There’s almost 1,300 species.”
Children anxiously pointed upward as they waited for the small insect-eaters to fly. Just after sunset, the spectacle began.
The first group of winged mammals emerged, flying in twos or threes into the emerging twilight as the sun sank below the horizon. Visitors gasped in anticipation as more and more poured out of the manmade enclaves.
Suddenly, tens of thousands of bats filled the sky and chirped in anticipation of their nighttime feast. An enterprising hawk swooped in, trying to catch his own batty dinner but failed to grasp any in its talons.
Then, I began to feel what felt like raindrops as the creatures flew overhead. Great, I thought. Bat droppings.
To be fair, the university’s website cautions bat house visitors about falling urine and guano. One smart spectator, who I imagined was a veteran bat watcher, even brought an umbrella.
Within a few minutes, most of the bats had taken off for their nighttime hunting and left only a few to trickle out and follow suit.
It was hard to put into words what I had seen or felt while witnessing the bats swarm, but I knew I had just watched something very special.
If you go: The UF Bat Houses are on the north side of Museum Road across from Lake Alice in Gainesville. Spring through summer, when the days grow longer, are the best times to view bats — which are most numerous during calm, warm evenings when temperatures are above 65 degrees. Find more information and webcams at floridamuseum.ufl.edu/bats.