Gardening

Dracula, Batman and Company… What About Bats?

For the month of October, I propose to you a Halloween theme for the Ecology in the Garden columns: the discovery of unloved critters, the truth about the myths that surround them, and their essential role in your garden. Ready to face your phobias?

Who says Halloween, says spider… and no, that’s still not the subject of today’s column… I lacked courage. Lucky for us (and me!), who says Halloween, also says bats.

Little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus)

I love this little misunderstood mammal. They’re so cute, they’re useful, and what’s more, they’re everywhere: both in culture and on different continents. 

Hang on tight, I have a lot to say today! (But I promise you it’s worth it!)

Why Are We Afraid of Bats?

That’s a very good question. This animal is present on all continents except Antarctica. How is it that such a widespread animal is the victim of such collective fear when it doesn’t represent a danger? And above all, why don’t we know them better?

Not having the answer to the question myself, I did my research. 

To my great surprise, I haven’t been able to trace an origin of the fear inspired by this little-known creature. I discovered that people haven’t liked these flying critters for a very long time. In fact, since ancient times, they’ve been a bad omen. 

Throughout history, they were associated with demons, witches, bad luck, darkness… you get the deal!

Maybe it’s because it’s just an animal that lives at night and isn’t seen often? Maybe they’re just very different from us, which makes them mysterious? What we don’t know tends to be shrouded in mystery and to give rise to more or less well-founded ideas.

We should also mention that in the 16th century, European settlers encountered a blood-feeding bat in Brazil. 

Imagine their terror!

Vampire commun (Desmodus rotundus)
Common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus). They are one of the vast majority of bats that are smaller than your thumb.Photo: marcozozaya, inaturalist.org.

This curious diet fuels a whole lot of legends and myths. Yet these blood-drinking bats are only found in South America and only three species feed this way. 

You read that correctly? Only three species are sanguineivores (feeding on blood).

Out of about 1400 species of bats.

These three little buggers have the spotlight on them. Too bad for the others, who are all just as interesting in their own way! Ahh… so unfair.

Besides, vampires already existed at the time. They were naturally associated with this strange animal following their discovery.

Of course, the real answer to the question, “why are we afraid of bats?” can once again be found with our very dear Hollywood friend…

5 reasons why the bat is the mysterious animal par excellence for Hollywood

1. Let’s immediately settle the following question: 

Yes, some bats drink blood. 

No, they don’t drink human blood. 

They feed on the blood of farm animals. Imagine a nice big plump pig. During his sleep, a tiny bat comes to land very close to him. They give it a small bite to drink a few drops of blood before returning to the forest. That’s all!

It’s like a mosquito bite. The pig does not die, suffer, or turn into a vampire pig!

I assure you that this vampire cat was not bitten by a bat.

Bonus: One-fifth of the planet’s mammalian species are bats. 
Incredible, right? 

They don’t all feed on the same thing; some eat fruit, others drink nectar from flowers, and still others feed on small animals (frogs, mice, and company). 

I don’t know all the bats in the world (pardon my ignorance!) but I know the eight species of Quebec well. Here, they are all insectivorous, that is to say, they feed on insects. They especially love large ones like moths.

Chauve-souris rousse (Lasiurus borealis).
Eastern red bat (Lasiurus borealis). Photo: calopteryx, inaturalist.org.

2. Bats will not get tangled in your hair. 

They move mainly using echolocation; they emit a cry that will bounce off surfaces and obstacles and return to his ears. Thanks to the information they receive from these echoes, the bat can move around in its environment without colliding with every single obstacle. 

This surprising ability allows them to spot objects as thin… as a human hair!

 l’oreillard de Townsend (Corynorhinus townsendii),
Admire Townsend’s big-eared bat (Corynorhinus townsendii), whose ears are as long as its body. Photo: mtnmisfits, inaturalist.org.

You have to, otherwise, how do you catch insects?

Bats have no interest in approaching humans… Unless the insects are hovering around you because of the delicious smell of your shampoo: a real bat buffet! 

Don’t worry, they won’t affect you. They know exactly where your head is and where the mosquitoes are.

3. While we’re talking about a bat’s senses, we know that it’s not blind. Some even have very good vision. 

For the fruit bat (which eats fruit), vision is the most important sense. After all, echolocation can spot obstacles, but a fruit doesn’t move much or make any noise. The best way to spot it is by sight. 

The fruit bat is my favorite. As a picture is worth a thousand words, here is one.

Chauve-souris suspendue à l'envers
Notice its large eyes and smaller ears compared to other feeding types. Isn’t it cute? Looks like a chihuahua! Photo: Peter Neumann, unsplash.com.

4. Rabies. 

Bats are often associated with this deadly disease in the majority of mammals. She is indeed a carrier of this virus. Although she is not the only one to transmit it, we are particularly suspicious because she can be contaminated, but show no signs of the disease. Conversely, a raccoon will foam at the mouth, be aggressive, disoriented, etc.

If you are bitten by a bat, go to the emergency room IMMEDIATELY to get a rabies shot. This disease is very serious and fatal in humans.

NEVER touch a bat with your bare hands.

For more information on the diseases, I invite you to consult the site batwatch.ca

5. The bat is not a mouse. 

Nor a bird. Nor an insect. It is a small mammal that has evolved to use its hands as wings. You read that right: their fingers are connected by a thin membrane of skin that allows them to fly. I repeat: it is not a flying mouse!

Chauve-souris au vol
Look how well you can see the fingers, the forearm and the upper arm. The thumb is the small claw above the wing and is used for climbing. Photo: Ishan @seefromthesky, unsplash.com.

The Role of the Bat in All the Gardens of the World

They can get rid of insects or small animals that harm crops. That’s a bit boring, considering that frogs, snakes or spiders do it too, right?

Well, that’s not all! The bat is also a laidback gardener!

When they feed on fruits, they swallow the pits. Once the meal is digested, these are ejected with the guano (that’s what you call bat droppings, a nod to fans of Ace Ventura in Africa). It often even happens in flight.

And there you go! A pip of fruit, in a nice little heap of natural fertilizer, planted at a respectable distance from its parent..

The nectarivorous bat has no need to be jealous: it plays an equally important role in pollination. Some plants have no other pollinator than this animal. This is the case of agave, the plant from which tequila is made. 

Be warned: no flying mammals, no tequila!

Chauve-souris volant devant une fleur avec la langue sortie
It takes a long tongue to fetch nectar, but that doesn’t stop the flower from depositing pollen in the hairs of a bat’s head. Photo: Ishan @seefromthesky, unsplash.com.

All this being said, you have the right not to like them, but they’re essential. Without bats, no mango, banana, cocoa, tequila, etc.

So to conclude this long (but interesting!) blog, I want to hear you all say it out loud: 

Thank you bats!

Audrey Martel is a biologist who graduated from the University of Montreal. After more than ten years in the field of scientific animation, notably for Parks Canada and the Granby Zoo, she joined Nature Conservancy of Canada to take up new challenges in scientific writing. She then moved into marketing and joined Leo Studio. Full of life and always up for a giggle, or the discovery of a new edible plant, she never abandoned her love for nature and writes articles for both Nature sauvage and the Laidback Gardener.

8 comments on “Dracula, Batman and Company… What About Bats?

  1. Mary L Discuillo

    I realize bats are important creatures that help control the mosquitoes and for that I am thankful. They are creepy creatures,however, and the number 1 carrier of rabies of all mammals. These two points make them really hard to love.

  2. marianwhit

    Wonderful piece, sharing to Native Plant Gardening Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Naturalists. Happy Halloween, and yes, we spend a lot of time talking about spiders! Go for it!

  3. Lovely essay. Thank you for all the information and lovely photos! All animals and all plants living on our beautiful planet are worthy of our interest, esteem, and concerned care.

  4. Thank-you for this great post. Bats are seriously misunderstood creatures. Any creature who devours mosquitoes has my total respect and support.

  5. Raisa ghersi

    Very interesting article, thanks!

  6. Catherine Johns

    Thank you!

  7. Jt Michaels

    Yup, we were threatened with bats getting tangled in our long hair!

  8. I love bats! And now, thanks to you, I know why! I love mango, banana, cocoa, and tequila! When we lived off grid in the woods, we had a couple of bats on the property and even hung a little bat house high in a tree for them. Amazing creatures! We encouraged them because we had a lot of mosquitoes.

Leave a Reply

Sign up for the Laidback Gardener blog and receive articles in your inbox every morning!

%d bloggers like this: