Face Fulls of Pollen and Bellies full of night flying bugs, Bats in the Garden
Last month, in January, we talked about solitary bees. I’ll admit I originally thought it was too soon to talk about pollinators, but low and behold it was 78’F outside and the fully engorged dandelions were covered in bees. Now it’s the end of February and I’m wrapping my budding peach trees every other night to protect from frost. So I have so clue what the weather will be beyond next afternoon, so I might as well talk about the pollinator you ignore the most–BATS!
The oldest memory I have is learning how to draw a bat.
As a child, I was obsessed with bats (and still am even as an adult). In school I would give book reports on bats. I had anatomical models on bats. In Cub Scouts, instead of bird houses we built bat houses. (Although I think my parents influenced this activity). Oddly enough, I wasn’t a fan of Batman. I guess the idea of a vigilante billionaire didn’t sit well with me even as a youth. Once, I even tried to tame a bat, but it turned out to be Dracula and he just took me as his bride–just kidding.
Or am I… ?
All in all, bats were my world, and I think they should be apart of yours too.
Bats of Texas – Species List
Mexican Free-Tailed bat seems to be the most talked about for the DFW. So make this easy and just pretend (unless otherwise mentioned) that all the bats in this article look like this:
There are 33 species of bats in 4 families documented in the state of Texas alone. I just copied and pasted this info from here. You should know that some species are known only from a single specimen, while others are collected from large colonies.
- Mormoops megalophylla – Ghost-faced Bat
- Choeronycteris mexicana – Mexican Long-tongued Bat
- Leptonycteris nivalis – Mexican Long-nosed Bat**
- Diphylla ecaudata – Hairy-legged Vampire
- Myotis austroriparius – Southeastern Myotis
- Myotis californicus – California Myotis
- Myotis ciliolabrum – Western Small-footed Myotis
- Myotis occultus – Southwestern Little Brown Myotis
- Myotis septentrionalis – Northern Long-eared Myotis
- Myotis thysanodes – Fringed Myotis
- Myotis velifer – Cave Myotis
- Myotis volans – Long-legged Myotis
- Myotis yumanensis – Yuma Myotis
- Lasiurus blossevillii – Western Red Bat
- Lasiurus borealis – Eastern Red Bat
- Lasiurus cinereus – Hoary Bat
- Lasiurus ega – Southern Yellow Bat*
- Lasiurus intermedius – Northern Yellow Bat
- Lasiurus seminolus – Seminole Bat
- Lasiurus xanthinus – Western Yellow Bat
- Lasionycteris noctivagans – Silver-haired Bat
- Parastrellus hesperus – American Parastrelle
- Perimyotis subflavus – American Perimyotis
- Eptesicus fuscus – Big Brown Bat
- Nycticeius humeralis – Evening Bat
- Euderma maculatum – Spotted Bat*
- Corynorhinus rafinesquii – Rafinesque’s Big-eared Bat*
- Corynorhinus townsendii – Townsend’s Big-eared Bat
- Antrozous pallidus – Pallid Bat
- Tadarida brasiliensis – Brazilian Free-tailed Bat
- Nyctinomops femorosaccus – Pocketed Free-tailed Bat
- Nyctinomops macrotis – Big Free-tailed Bat
- Eumops perotis – Western Mastiff Bat
* Texas Parks and Wildlife Threatened Species
** Texas Parks and Wildlife Endangered Species
If you really want to know more about bats of Texas check out this recommended book.
Now you might be thinking, “Sure bats are flying rats with uglier faces, but why should I care about them in my garden”. Fortunately for you, my horoscope said that I would have great patience and bad aim. So luckily I can’t hit you with a shoe and so I’ll be forced to talk about the importance of bats in two branches of thought, from my garden and then from the importance of someone else’s garden.
Branch One, my garden
I have a small overly shaded garden in the middle of a busy suburb. Each year I seek to add more nesting spots, and plant native vegetation. My goal is to draw in more creatures from nature so that they can find refuge in my personal oasis. Surprisingly each year, more creatures reveal themselves in my shady refuge, as I turn my yard into their yard. This year I have a nests of chickadees, sparrows, robins, house finches, Sulfur butterflies, and Orchard bees–and its only February.
Why do I do this? Because the other day, I saw a butterfly trying desperately to pollinate a piece of colorful plastic on the ground. That butterfly exhausted itself, and repeated this task until I picked up the plastic. That is just one of many scenes playing out across this landscape that we made in our image. Bats are one part in a multitude of systems that have a very direct impact on our own survival. So this year I’m putting in two Bat houses, because I want a “night shift” in my garden. I want to see what their presence will have in my yard. Who knows, maybe I’ll get some very usable guano out of the deal or maybe I’ll get a love letter from a secret admirer. ?
Key Elements of Survival
Just like the previous article, there are several key elements you need in your yard in order to attract wildlife: Shelter / Food / Water / Places to Raise Young. The opposite could also be noticed. When you look at the landscapes around you, do these landscapes offer these elements to wildlife? If not how can you help add to them? (Ok I’ll get off my soap box for a second, but you should really consider this.)
1. Bat Houses
Bats roost in colonies, and make a sort of day-care while raising young. Their tiny bodies stacked up, can make for some pretty warm housing conditions. These interesting tidbits can make their housing requirements a bit more tricky. I had recently installed a bat house above my studio and I took a pic to show the Ecology Department’s Bat Expert at TCU.
She informed me that I need to do a bit more work if I truly hoped to get bats in my yard. I needed to add another house or build a better house.
Here are her recommendations.
- A complicated Rocket Box type (plans here, pdf)
- This was the top recommended plan by BCI as well. Bats favor the multi-chambered tree-like quality of this bat house because they can move into cooler chambers as needed. If you are feeling handy, make one and follow the instructions, otherwise you might not get any bats inhabiting your hard efforts.
- Two joined store-bought and modified houses (buy two here)
- If you aren’t handy, or short on tools, buying two of these houses and mounting them back to back on a pole will make a third chamber in the negative space. (see plans here, pdf).
If this all sounds complicated, don’t worry it is. But I think you are smart enough to ask for help. Email and txt msg are great ways to reach me.
2. Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls
Bats drink water. They will drink from bird baths, swimming pools, and rivers and lakes that you’re used to. Wide reflective surfaces of water and the sound of water, are all great ways to attract bats and other animals to your yard. I keep a few bird baths and I put mosquito dunks in during the summer. However, because of the flight patterns of bats, I’m wondering if I need larger water sources that are easier to skim into. I have noticed that when I use my rain collection to wash and refill the bird baths, the bees and birds will use it more readily, than when I just pour tap water into the baths. So if I add more water sources to my yard, I think that I need to bulk up on my rain collection. Here’s a pdf about Watering Wildlife (bat focused with tips on preventing bat drowning.)
3. I Want to Suck Your blood… or maybe eat a bug
Most bats are insectivores (bug eaters). Some bats are fruit eaters, and some are nectivores (nectar from flowers). Of the 1100+ bats in the world only three are blood suckers. Of the blood suckers, they are not really scary, just lumpy looking.
Most of the bats in my yard are insect eaters. Sometimes you can see bats swooping in near the street lamps at night as they eat the moths collected around the lamps.
“Mexican free-tailed bats are primarily insectivores. They hunt their prey using echolocation. The bats eat moths, beetles, dragonflies, flies, true bugs, wasps, and ants. They usually catch flying prey in flight. Large numbers of Mexican free-tailed bats fly hundreds of meters above the ground in Texas to feed on migrating insects. The consumption of insects by these bats can be quite significant. The onset of evening emergence from caves and the end of returns at dawn tend to correlate with sunset and sunrise, respectively, with dawn returns ending increasingly later in correlation to sunrise throughout the summer season. The loose, wrinkled skin around the mouth is thought to aid in expanding the mouth during flight to catch insects.” – Wikipedia
Branch two, someone else’s garden
Many Texas bats are insectivores, aka they eat bugs.
“A 2006 study found that just in the cotton fields of Texas, Mexican free-tailed bats saved farmers an annual average of $724,000 in pest control costs and losses from insect-related damages. Extrapolating that to the country as a whole, a follow-up study in 2011 estimated that bats are worth around $23 billion in pest suppression services.”- Batcon.org
In the tropics (where bananas, peaches, durian, cloves, carob, balsa wood, and agave are grown) bats are the key species that pollinate the flowers and spread the seeds that reforest areas damaged by wildfires.
“Most flowering plants cannot produce seeds and fruit without pollination – the process of moving pollen grains from the male part of the flower (the stamen) to the female part (the pistil). This process also improves the genetic diversity of cross-pollinated plants. Bats that drink the sweet nectar inside flowers pick up a dusting of pollen and move it along to other flowers as they feed.” – WellnessMama.com
So maybe you don’t like tropical fruits? Maybe you only eat turnips and sadness? What can bats do for you? One word–TEQUILA
Bat Friendly Tequila
The production of tequila is worth its own article, but I just want to give you the skinny on why the agave that makes tequila, needs the bat as much as the bat needs the agave.
What most agave farmers do, is they chop down the flower stalks of agave before they have time to make flowers. They do this because the sugars in the agave are at their peak and that makes the tequila sweeter. The problem is that because the agave doesn’t make flowers, it also doesn’t get pollinated by the bats. No flowers, no pollination, no seeds, equals a lack of genetic diversity. This means that a majority of the agave grown is genetically the same plant. You can see monoculture failures like this in the great potato famine, and in the eventual extinction of the banana. This happened to the agaves in the late 90’s, and continues to be a problem today. (NPR)
What can you as an avid tequila drinker do? Drink better tequila.
Cheap tequila is only required to be 51% fermented agave, the rest of the mixture ban be corn syrup or chicken teeth for all the consumer cares. Household name brands of tequila are not incentivised to allow their agaves to produce flower stalks which feeds the bat (a time consuming process) but the smaller (albeit better quality) tequila producers are getting involved with an organization that add “Bat Friendly” holographic stickers to brands of tequila that utilize bat friendly agriculture methods. Here is a small list of Bat Friendly Brands
“This project aims to promote and incorporate Bat Friendly practices in the agave management and spirit production derived from this plants by allowing a 5% of the agave population to flower to ensure there is food for the nectar feeding bats of the Leptonycteris genre, and in consequence we have pollination.”BatFriendly.org
The Downsides of Bats
“Some bats may carry rabies – although not in amounts as high as those in raccoons and skunks, it still makes getting bit by them more risky. So, if you haven’t dealt with a bat infestation in your house yet, be sure to keep your bedroom door windows closed, especially when you go to sleep.” – Palmetto Wildlife Extractors
So the main problems that I can see from having bats in your yard are the rabies concern and the potential for the colony to relocate into your attic. I couldn’t find any post-medieval sources for bats laying eggs in your hair or stealing your soul. At worst they are less aggressive than chickens, and quieter than dogs. There are a number of businesses that will remove and relocate naughty bats and if you get bit by a bat–what the hell were you doing petting one in the first place?!
- Bats need homes too
- Don’t drink cheap tequila
- Buy cool T-shirts to support beneficial organizations
Header image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay