Ever since West Nile virus struck the United States in 1999 - killing seven people and infecting 62 others with encephalitis in New York City - health officials have been struggling to control mosquitoes that carry the disease.
Fifteen-year-old Glen Burnie resident Zachary Groff thinks he may have found a solution - bats.
"Movies portray bats as evil, blood-sucking creatures, when really bats avoid humans and eat insects, especially mosquitoes," Zach said.
Zach has taken up the cause of attracting as many bats as he can to Baltimore-Annapolis Trail, a breeding ground for many mosquitoes in Anne Arundel County.
The teen-ager became concerned about West Nile virus two years ago, when Maryland's first infected crow was found dead in Baltimore. He combined his concern with his need to complete a community project as a candidate for Eagle Scout with Boy Scout Troop 873 in Glen Burnie.
"I was looking for a method that was both natural and cost-effective," Zach said. He wanted to find an alternative to insecticide sprayings in Maryland that are costly and pose a potential health hazard. After much research, which involved scratching dragonflies and purple martins off the list because of their inability to stay in one area, Zach came across the idea of building houses to attract bats.
Zach plans to install 26 bat houses along the 13-mile trail from Annapolis to Glen Burnie, placing them high in trees about a half-mile apart.
With one house built so far, Zach describes it as basic: "It's made of cedar - which insects don't like - and there is a hole in the bottom that allows as many as 20 bats to fill the crevice." A chain covered with a hose material will secure the house about 25 feet high in a tree.
Zach is building the houses - possibly with help from fellow Scouts- based on a modified design he saw on the Internet.
"Bats like small spaces, they will stay in one area for at least two years, and they can catch hundreds of mosquito-sized insects an hour," he said.
In the spring, the Anne Arundel County Parks and Recreation Department approved the project, but Zach is looking for donations to buy materials for the houses. "I would like to get about 30 sponsors from different businesses close to the trail," Zach said.
He has acquired 10 sponsors who gave at least $20 each, which is tax-deductible. He hopes to begin putting up the houses after the summer, when the trail is less crowded.
Zach says he is confident his efforts will be successful. He sees no negative effects of the bat houses. "They are affordable, environmentally friendly, require no maintenance and will affect a large area of the county," he said.
The teen's only fear is a bat house falling from a tree, but he notes with a laugh, "a tree is more likely to fall down."
The completion of this project will not only help rid the county of potential West Nile virus-carrying mosquitoes, but it will also enable Zach to become an Eagle Scout - the highest rank in Scouting. Only about 4 percent of all Boy Scouts earn the prestigious rank, by demonstrating leadership, service and outdoor skills.
When he is not participating in Boy Scouts, the Chesapeake High School sophomore is active in his television production group at school. Zach also recently returned from a Future Business Leaders of America convention.
Information on Zach's project: 410-760-6241.