Image: Scott Crocoll
Mike Groll  /  AP
More than one million bats have died in the United States after a deadly fungal infection was discovered in 2006.
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updated 4/5/2011 8:05:39 AM ET 2011-04-05T12:05:39

It's bad enough that the U.S. honeybee population has dropped precipitously in the past few years, threatening the existence of all pollinated crops (that's one-third of American agriculture). Now an epidemic may be hitting the country's bats — and it has the potential to further threaten agriculture.

Bats are the unsung heroes of organic farming, consuming massive amounts of pests on a daily basis. The little brown bat, Montana's most common bat species, gobbles up 1,200 insects per hour and in one 2006 study, bats in South-Central Texas were shown to have an annual pest control value of over $740,000 (29 percent of the value of the area's cotton crop).

For organic farms, this is key, since pest control is hard enough with chemicals. But even nonorganic farms don't want to spend an extra three-quarters of a million killing more bugs, a cost that would no doubt be passed on to consumers. And it's not just bug-chomping: like honeybees, some bats even pollinate crops, including papayas, mangos, and figs. Reuters estimates that bats' total value to agriculture is $22.9 billion annually.

The U.S. bat population is threatened, however, by something called white-nose syndrome, a deadly fungal infection that the bats pick up while hibernating. According to Reuters, more than one million bats have died since the syndrome was discovered in 2006. But the problem isn't as simple as that. The fungus that spread white-nose syndrome is also rampant in Europe, but bats aren't dropping dead there.

What's the missing piece that is killing so many U.S. bats? It's hard to say, but organizations like the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Bat Conservation International are scrambling to find out before bat species start going extinct. Because once that happens, farmers may find themselves without a major ally in the war against pests.

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