- Author: Sharon Prell
What are some of the things we think about when we see bats (Chiroptera)? Bats can get tangled in your hair. Vampire bats fly around at night looking for human prey. Of course, most of us know these are myths, the origins of which are lost in the mists of time. But did you know that it's not only birds and bees and butterflies and various insects that are pollinators? Bats also help out in the pollination arena when they take over the pollination night shift from those listed above.
Bat pollination is known as chiropterophily. Most of the bat species that pollinate flowers are found in tropical climates, although bat pollination has a geographically wide range. They are of more importance in desert areas but they are also valuable to us here in California, not only in areas with a desert-like climate but also because there is a wide range of plants grown here with nocturnal blossoms that are pollinated by bats.
Nectivorous bats (Megabats which eat nectar, fruit or pollen) have both good eyesight and a keen sense of smell which help them locate the flowers. Evolution has seen them adapt to the flowers with long muzzles, fewer teeth, long bristly tongues and the ability to hover…all of which help them get to the nectar.
Since they are only out and about between sunset and sunrise, bats prefer flowers that have white or pale nocturnal flora. These are often large and bell-shaped and have copious amounts of nectar that emit a strong fruity or musky odor that attracts the flying mammals. So…how do bats get around in the dark to find their evening meals? Most bats have a highly sophisticated sense of hearing. They emit sounds that bounce off of objects in their path, sending echoes back to the bats. This is called echolocation. The bats can establish the size of objects, how far away they are, how fast they are moving and their texture, all in a split second. So of course they know where you are and that you're much bigger than they are so they're not going to fly into your hair.
A bat can visit up to 30 flowers over the course of a night, feeding on pollen (and whatever insects may be sleeping peacefully unaware in the blossoms) and also transferring what sticks to its body from flower to flower. Combined with the large number of bats in a colony, the number of flowers visited in one night and the far distances they travel to get to certain florescences, they are expert pollinators and cross pollinators.
Since California is a big agricultural state, bat pollinators are found in many areas here. Do you have a serious taste for fruit? So do the Megabats. You will find bananas, mangos, dates, avocados, peaches, almost any kind of fruit on the Megabat menu. Do you have an orchard at your home? Try enticing the furry flyers to stay with a bat box in your yard. There are many websites that provide instructions for building your box. You can also find websites that sell pre-made bat boxes.
Microbats are the insect eaters. These bats are economically important because they consume insect pests, reducing the need for pesticides. Just last week I was at the Yolo Wildlife Viewing Area where I learned about a large colony that congregates under the Yolo Causeway at certain times of the year. I was told it was an amazing sight when the entire group takes off at sunset to find the insects that provide their dinner during the night.
Have you ever been terrorized by mosquitoes, moths and other night flying insects? Again, you might want to buy or build a bat box to entice the critters to your home or neighborhood. They use their echolocation ability to find flying or crawling insects and their superb flying skills to catch them. This involves gathering prey in their wing or tail membranes and transferring it to their mouths mid-flight. Insect-eating bats are extremely good at what they do. A little brown bat can catch and eat 600 mosquitoes per hour.
And last but not least. Margaritas anyone? There are many different agaves (Agave spp.) but the main ingredient of the luscious Margarita is tequila made from the blue agave (Agave tequilana). While grown primarily in Mexico, the blue can be grown in semi-arid soils in California if desired. After being pollinated by multiple bat species, agaves grow a stalk up to 15 feet high, with candelabra-shaped flower clusters at the top. The flowers give off a smell that is very attractive to bats, a sure sign that the nectar bar is open. Agave nectar can be up to 22 percent sugar and the pollen is 50 percent protein, providing an excellent fuel source for flying. By the way, a dried agave stalk makes a very nice non-traditional Christmas tree.