Those fishermen and boaters in the Florida Keys whom mosquitoes are attracted to might have noticed a strange-looking tower on Lower Sugarloaf Key a mile northwest of U.S. 1 at mile marker 17 (see photo below by photographer Dale McDonald). Turn right at Bat Tower Road, which may not be marked, and head for Sugarloaf Airport. You should be able to see the tower at that point, although there may not be any historic plaque to give the history of the structure.
It is one of two so-called bat towers that were built in the early 20th century to try to control the many mosquitoes in the area.
The idea behind the tower is simple: thousands of bats can spend the daylight hours resting in the structure. Then at dusk, they can wake up, fly out to gorge on the pesky skeeters, and return before dawn for another day of rest, before beginning their nightly foray again.
In the 1920s, the tower builder, a man named Richter Perky from Kansas City, Missouri, ran a restaurant, gambling casino, and cottages at Sugarloaf, but was annoyed at the thousands of mosquitoes that plagued his guests. So he built the two 50-foot-tall wooden towers, brought in thousands of bats from Cuba to feast on the mosquitoes, put the bats in the towers, and waited for the creatures to swarm out and begin getting rid of the bugs. The problem was that the bats quickly disappeared, content to find their own habitations.
Bat towers exist around the country, some of them based on the original so-called Campbell Bat Tower, as is the Sugarloaf tower. Builders in Temple Terrace, Florida, plan to reconstruct a 1924 tower near the Hillsborough River to help control the insect population. Two small bat towers exist in my town of Gainesville, Florida, and they attract hundreds of visitors around dusk each day, visitors who like to watch thousands of bats leave the towers each evening on their foraging for mosquitoes.
Florida novelist Tim Dorsey mentioned the Sugarloaf tower in his Torpedo Juice novel. He has some bad guys crucify a drug smuggler upside down on the bat tower as a warning to other such drug smugglers to stay hidden from the police.
I don’t know how the mosquito problem is today in the Keys, but I think we have fewer bug problems where I live. Maybe an enterprising entomologist in Monroe County should build another, up-to-date bat tower. If so, let me know where and when you plan to build it. I would hope that “if you build it, they (the bats) will come,” and the mosquitoes will go away.
Kevin McCarthy, the author of Alligator Tales (Pineapple Press, 1998), can be reached at email@example.com.