Are you celebrating Bat Week? Because this annual, international celebration of the role of bats in nature is happening right now October 24-31.
There are approximately 1,390 bat species in the world and Texas is home to 33 species, one of the most diverse and largest locations in the U .S. Most (95%) bats are insectivores (eat only insects). However, there are bats that like to eat fruit, seeds, birds, fish and yes, even blood. But these bats are in Central and South America and don’t like human blood. Separating fact from guano is Bat Week’s goal. (If you didn’t know that bat excrement is called guano now you get the reference). Bats have a starring role in Halloween as a creepy, sinister blood-sucking fiend. Bats are often referred to as flying rats but really they are more closely related to you and I than rodents. Blind as a bat is misleading because bats can see about as well as other mammals. But it is true that bats use their own sonar system (echolocation) to navigate. Some people worry that bats will get tangled up in their hair and build a nest. Bats may swoop near people, but they have no interest in your hair. The other big fear associated with bats is rabies. While bats can carry rabies, it is a very small percentage (.005%) in an average colony, but more about that later.
Why should we care about bats? Estimates are that at least 23 billion dollars annually are saved in agriculture and human health expenses around the world because of bats. Look at the most common species in Texas, the Mexican Free-tailed bat. These animals consume some mosquitoes, but their diets consist primarily of moths, including corn earworm and armyworm moths, and beetles. This diet plays a large role in controlling pests for the agricultural community and our landscapes.
Bees and butterflies are in the spotlight, but bats are pollinators, too. Bananas and agave are two cultivated plants that rely on bats for pollination. Bats get credit for dispersing seeds as well. Called the “farmers of the tropics” they are especially effective in replanting devastated forest ecosystems. Bats almost exclusively pollinate the baobab tree of the African savannah. This tree is called the “African Tree of Life” because it is so critical for that ecosystem.
Bats occupy a variety of habitats including caves, trees, buildings and bridges. Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT) actively researches how to keep and increase bat habitats around Texas highways and bridges. A web search of TXDOT, bats and bridges will pull up more information on these efforts. While bats prefer to roost close to an abundant food source, the Mexican Free-tailed bat has been known to travel miles in a night for its favorite snack.
Now, back to rabies. A bat that is found on the ground or easily approached is more likely to be sick or injured or bite. Therefore, the first thing to remember is that neither adults nor children should handle bats, or for that matter, any other wild animal they approach. In Denton, call Animal Services to capture the bat if it has been in contact with pets or people. If there is a possibility that a human has had direct contact or may have been bitten by a bat, it is recommended that you call, Denton County Public Health’s Health Emergency Alert Response Team (HEART) at 940-349-2909 to get information on next steps.
For more information about Bat Week visit https://batweek.org. Now that we know how lovely bats are, maybe it is time to destigmatize black cats as well. How that fits into a horticulture column will take some creativity, so don’t hold your breath.
Special thanks to AgriLife Extension Program Specialist, Janet Hurley for much of the information in this article.
Educational programs of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service are open to all people without regard to race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, genetic information or veteran status.
The Texas A&M University System, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the County Commissioners Courts of Texas Cooperating