Everyone talks about bees and monarchs as pollinators, but few people mention one of our most unique pollinators — the bat. I was surprised to learn that bats provide pollination for over 500 different types of tropical plants along with many other non-tropical plants such as corn and the agave plants from which tequila is made — one of favorite liquors! These bats are frugivores; they eat fruit, seeds, nectar, pollen, etc.
They also do a great job of keeping insects and bugs away from crops, including keeping the mosquito population down for you and me. Here in Wisconsin it is estimated that bats save farmers up to $658 million every year in the form of pest control. These bats are insectivores; they eat mosquitoes, beetles, moths, mayflies, etc.
There are more than 1300 species of bats world-wide, but only about 40 in North America. 70% eat insects while the other 30% eat various types of fruit. A very small number of bats feed on blood, but they do not feed on people — only cattle (and are currently found only in Mexico and Central and South America).
Bats are mammals. Although they have the physical appearance of a rodent with wings, they are not part of the rodent family.
Echolocation — the system of locating things by their echoes.
As bats fly, they make shouting sounds into the night to enable them to locate prey by their echos. The insectivore bats use the returning echoes to determine the size and shape of nearby prey and which way it is going.
Frugivore bats use the echos to hear and to communicate so they can locate their favorite flowers and trees, all the while moving pollen from one plant to another. The bats work the night shift, while the birds and bees work the day shift — round-the-clock pollination.
Like bees, bats have their nemesis, too. It’s called white-nose syndrome and is a fungal disease which affects cave-dwelling hibernating bats. Researchers are making progress in understanding this disease, but so far they’re actions are limited. There has been an 80% decline in the bat populations in northeastern USA and the disease is now spreading to Central USA having recently been found in southwestern Wisconsin.
Wisconsin has four cave dwelling bats (Little Brown, Big Brown, Northern Long-eared and Eastern Pipistrelle) and three tree bats (Silver-haired, Hoary and Eastern Red). The tree bats migrate south for the winter, like monarch butterflies.
Just like the other pollinators, bats need our help. We need to include them in our native plant habitat planning. They need roosts near good foraging habitats such as fields, meadows, woodlands and water. They also need good commuting habitats to help them travel safely between their roosts and their native plant foraging grounds. This includes features to help them navigate such as hedgerows, tree lines and streams, and to shelter them from predators.
Mark your calendar for the 2017 Wisconsin Bat Festival to be held August 26th at the recently “pardoned from extinction” Mitchell Park Domes in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
More information about the Wisconsin Bat Program.
More information about bats go to Bat Conservation International.