GAINESVILLE — An hour before dusk, the only spectators at the wooden fence on Museum Road were a curious retired couple who drove over from Orlando. Then, just as the sun’s last rays were fading, about 100 people materialized.
The crowd on a recent weekday evening included taciturn tourists from Germany and chattering exchange students from South Korea. They all lined the fence across a field from a trio of white elevated buildings.
They were waiting to see the bats.
About half a million bats roost in these houses on the University of Florida campus. Nearly every night — not just on Halloween — they all take flight about 15 minutes after sunset, heading off to eat an estimated 2½ billion insects a night.
As they stream into the lengthening shadows, the fluttering black figures “look like a million music notes swirling through the sky,” said Gainesville artist Margaret Tolbert, who lives about 200 yards away.
Most of them are Brazilian free-tail bats, but some are Southeastern myotis, according to Paul Ramey of the Florida Natural History Museum. Both types are small and brown and have wingspans of about a foot.
This all started with a disaster. About 5,000 bats lived in one of the university’s oldest buildings, Johnson Hall, which also housed a bar called the Rathskeller. In 1987, a grease fire in the Rathskeller burned down Johnson Hall.
The bats found new homes in, among other places, the stands at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. While the bats were content, Ramey said, the humans were unhappy about the smell, not to mention the occasional rain of guano.
University officials realized they had to take action when then-Gov. Bob Martinez, attending a sporting event, complained about the pervasive odor. The head of the university’s pest control, a woman named Lee Bloomcamp, suggested building a bat house.
When the university built the first one in 1991, the bats wanted nothing to do with it. Twenty-three times, work crews moved bats in, and twenty-three times they spent one day and then flew away, Ramey said.
“You can tell bats where they can’t live, but you can’t tell bats where to live,” he said.
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Over the next two years, workers sealed up all their other campus hangouts. The bats eventually got the message. They settled into the bat house and when the university built the second one, the colony expanded into it.
In 1998, university officials proposed moving the bat houses so they could use the field for soccer and other sports. Bat fans, who had begun showing up nightly to watch the roosting bats take flight, were outraged. They persuaded then-Gov. Lawton Chiles and the Cabinet to keep the bat houses right where they were.
By 2009, so many bats had crowded into the first bat house that the interior collapsed, killing about 100 of them. Thousands of bats scurried into any crevices nearby.
The university rebuilt the inside, but a faulty design kept the guano piling up along an interior ledge. That led to serious damage to the wood, Ramey said.
So in 2017, the university built a third bat house. This one was designed by architect Lou Schilling so that the university could easily collect the guano and sell it for fertilizer and thus offset the construction cost, Ramey said. So far, though, the bats have shown no interest in it, preferring the first two.
The crowds that gather to watch them take flight each night don’t care about those details, nor do they seem bothered by the faint whiff of ammonia drifting toward them. They just want to see the nightly spectacle.
About three minutes after sunset, Jim Cotter, who along with his wife had driven over from Orlando, pointed up and shouted, “First bat!” It darted past, then vanished. Not much happened for about 10 minutes. Then suddenly, at about 7:10 p.m., the air was filled with the rushing sound of hundreds of thousands of flapping wings.
Bats poured out of the houses like a dark river, headed straight for the trees where the crowd waited. The spectators stood there open-mouthed despite the danger of guano bombs. The bats shot around the edge of the trees and disappeared briefly, then reappeared in the distance, ascending into the clouds.
They travel up to 30 miles each night searching for bugs to eat, including mosquitoes, Ramey said. Then they make the long return flight, coming back by morning, dodging hawks and crows that try to knock them down and eat them.
For the people by the fence, the show was over by 7:25 p.m. Like the bats, they dispersed quickly into the night.