A piece of fiction from me today – at least, I hope it’s fiction…
The Bat Man
‘Hmm. What?’ Fred was deep into preparing his funding bid. This study on the dietary habits of pipistrelles would keep him in work for a couple of years.
‘Fred. Look.’ He glanced up. His colleague Nell was leaning over the desk holding out her mobile phone. In the middle of the screen was a black box. The white text in the middle read ‘Kill the bee-murdering bats’.
‘What is this?’ said Fred, frowning, ‘some sort of joke?’
‘No, Fred. Social media.’
‘I don’t do social media.’
‘That much is obvious,’ said Nell, ‘or you’d have seen it for yourself. This has gone viral.’
Viral? Fred knew enough to understand that it had been spread worldwide. ‘But what does it mean?’
‘It means,’ said Nell, ‘that we’re in big trouble.’
‘But really,’ said Fred, ‘kill the bee-murdering bats’? It’s nonsensical. Where does it come from?’
Nell sighed. ‘I traced it back to an article on a student website. Seems someone picked up a dead bat and dissected it. They found a bee in its stomach. The bee had stung the bat on the way down, and…’
‘The bat died of anaphylactic shock? Yeah, that figures.’ Fred was paying full attention now. ‘But what study is this from? I’ve never seen it.’
‘Doesn’t say.’ Nell shrugged.
‘You mean there is no accredited study? No references at all?’
Nell shook her head.
‘So that story is no more than hearsay – or even pure invention. Surely no-one would take it seriously?’
Nell shrugged again. ‘The wackier environmental groups do, Fred, and they make full use of social media. You know how touchy people are about bees. No bees, no food. You must have heard that.’
Fred nodded. ‘Yeah. Bit extreme. But bats don’t eat bees. Well, maybe the odd bat tries to eat the odd bee – but it’s not normally part of the diet, is it? Besides, bees are diurnal…’
‘And bats are nocturnal, yes,’ said Nell. ‘They don’t overlap too much, time-of-day-wise. I know that, you know that. But it cuts no ice with the social media mob, Fred. As far as they’re concerned they have proof of a single instance of a bat eating a bee and that means that all bats are evil bee-murderers.’
‘But it’s not true!’
‘Oh, Fred,’ said Nell, ‘you really are behind the times. Don’t you get it? They feel justified. Bees good, bats bad. Protect the life-giving bee at all costs, and they will.’
There was a queasy feeling making its way into Fred’s stomach. ‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean,’ said Nell, ‘that there are bat-killing vigilante groups going out at night. They’re netting the entrances to the roosts.’
‘What? I mean, what? They can’t do that, not in this country – they’re protected species, all of them.’
‘It’s happening, Fred. The police don’t dare to try and stop them – they’d be denounced as a bunch of bee-hating fascists. No, I’m not joking. The law is immaterial. The truth is immaterial. And it’s not just here, it’s worldwide. There are reports of fruit bats being killed in Africa.’
Fred’s head was beginning to spin. ‘Fruit bats? But… but they’re not even…’
‘Insectivores, no,’ said Nell. ‘All tarred with the same brush, I’m afraid. Bees good, bats bad.’
Fred was on his feet now. ‘But someone’s got to stand up and tell the truth! I will.’
Nell shook her head in disbelief. ‘You don’t know social media, Fred. Once everyone jumps aboard these crusades, there’s no gainsaying them. People want to be told they’re justified, not told they’re wrong. I wouldn’t be the one to stick my head above the parapet and defend the ‘bee-murdering bats’ if I were you. Not unless you want to be pilloried, threatened and have your career ruined. It’d bring discredit on this lab, too, and that wouldn’t bode well for you.’
Fred was aghast. ‘Is it really that bad?’
Nell nodded. ‘It is, Fred, it is.’
He slumped back into his seat, thought a moment, and then said, ‘Bats have been my specialisation – my whole life – I’ve studied them, lived around them, protected their colonies. I’ve worked so hard, Nell. And I know they’re no real threat to bees. What can I do if I can’t tell the truth?’
She pursed her lips, glanced at the papers spread in front of him. ‘Your funding bid – dietary habits of pipistrelles, isn’t it?’ Fred nodded, not seeing where this was leading. ‘There’s a memo going round, Fred – you’d have seen it if you ever checked your emails. There will be no funding available for upcoming bat studies unless they set out to prove that bats do eat bees. Politically unsafe to do otherwise with this social media campaign going on. So I suggest you change the emphasis on your bid if you want to keep working. Go prove that bats do eat bees.’
‘But it’s not true!’
Nell shook her head again. ‘I wish you’d stop saying that, Fred. You’ll get yourself into trouble. Besides, if you do as I suggest, you might – just might – find a way to limit the damage. Prove it’s the wrong sort of bees they’re eating or something.’
‘And if I don’t?’
‘The vigilantes are remorseless, Fred. Be prepared for a lot of bat population extinctions.’ She put away her mobile phone and turned to leave. ‘I should be prepared for that anyway,’ she said over her shoulder, and left him to contemplate his options in the grotesque new landscape of scientific study predicated on mob rule and political expediency that was opening up before him, a landscape where truth had ceased to have any importance at all.