At twilight in the summer I sit on my deck and watch swallows swoop through the air, catching their dinner. As the light drains from the sky, the darting switches to an erratic fluttering, and I know that I am no longer seeing birds, but bats. To me, they are no less mesmerizing. Some people are freaked out by bats; others love them. I’m in group two.
After snakes and spiders, bats are one of the most disliked and feared of all creatures, and like them, one of the most misunderstood. This misunderstanding of bat behavior keeps us from appreciating the important role they play in the natural world, and their impact on the foods we eat.
Bats are important because they dine on the insects that eat or spoil plants that humans depend on for food. Most of the bat species in North America eat moths, mosquitoes, flies, beetles, and aquatic insects. One bat can eat thousands of bugs in a night. They are fond of mosquitoes, helping to keep down their numbers and reducing the spread of malaria, West Nile virus and other mosquito-borne diseases.
There are almost 1400 bat species worldwide, with about 45 of those in the U.S. Not all bats eat insects; others eat fruit, some pollen and nectar, some rodents or frogs. Many fruits are pollinated by bats, including bananas, mangoes, and avocados. Bats pollinate the agave that gives us tequila. They also pollinate plants that humans use for medicine.
Just three species feed on the blood of warm-blooded animals – vampire bats – but only one of these is in the U.S., in far Southwest Texas.
Bats are mammals, and they are the only mammals that fly. Their wings are stretched skin over bones similar to our fingers. Bats are not rodents, or flying mice. They are their own amazing species.
A flying fox.
The smallest are called microbats. These are the bats we have in North America. The smallest weighs only about a dime. Larger bats, which live in Africa, Southeast Asia and Australia, are known as megabats. The largest bat is the Malayan flying fox, which weighs about two pounds and has a six-foot wingspan (thankfully these big boys only like fruit nectar).
Bats are not blind – their eyesight is excellent – but most species depend on echolocation to find their prey. By emitting high-pitched sounds that echo off solid matter – trees, buildings, insects, other bats – they can find insects and avoid anything else in their way. Fruit bats do not echolocate; they use sight to find their meals.
Bats live together in colonies – there can be hundreds or thousands of bats in a single colony. Most bats live in caves, rock crevices, or dead trees and travel out at night to hunt and feed. Female bats give birth to a single pup each year. Many bats hibernate over winter, but others migrate to warmer climes.
The only legitimate reason to “fear” bats is because some can carry rabies, but even that figure is less than 1% of all bats. To be safe, always give bats a wide berth.
Some bat species in the U.S. are endangered, and other species have lost populations due to habitat loss and diseases, especially white nose disease, which has no cure. The little brown bat, one of North America’s most common bats, has been especially hard-hit by white nose disease, with over a million dying since the disease was detected in 2006.
There are things we can do – and not do – to help bat populations in our area. Using pesticides to kill insects leaves fewer bugs for bats to eat. Letting dead trees stand on a property – as long as they are not a hazard – provides bat habitat. There are bat houses available to buy or build. Bat Conservation International has plans to download.
Batweek is held the last week in October, which is the 24-31 this year. It highlights bats’ place in nature, and why they matter. And why, instead of being frightened by bats, we should appreciate and protect them, for our well-being and theirs.
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