Bats Span Beyond Fear

Bats can be frightening. This time of year, they make for spooky Halloween costumes, ghoulish decorations and blood-sucking villains in movies.

“Bats are usually out of sight and out of mind, yet they invoke fear that may be taken to an irrational level,” said John W. Hermanson, Zoology professor at Cornell University.

But a world without them is much more daunting. These nocturnal mammals monitor insect populations, helping to achieve stability in the environment.

“The majority of our bats in North America are insectivores, eating vast quantities of insects, such as moths, beetles and mosquitoes,” said Micaela Jemison, a bat biologist and the director of communication & public engagement for Bat Conservation International. “The bats at Bracken Cave in Texas, the largest bat colony in the world, eat more than 150 tons of insects in one night.”

Hermanson said researchers are looking into whether or not the fact that bats feast on mosquitos can help control the Zika Virus. Though there’s not enough data just yet, we do know bats are key players in controlling farm pests.

Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2015 stressed the significance of bats in combating corn crop pests, which saves farmers more than $1 billion a year in crop damages around the globe. The corn earworm, a moth whose larvae feed on corn ears, cotton and tomatoes, causes direct damage to the yield. It can also introduce an avenue for infection by fungi, which produce compounds that are poisonous to humans.

“The study suggests an under-appreciated significance of bats as being helpful to the ecosystem,” said Hermanson.

Other studies have followed suit. One, published in the Journal of Medical Entomology in 2009, showed bats controlled the population of recreational pests, such as mosquitos. Another, done in 2009 for the Annals of Botany studied the interactions of bats with plants and concluded they served as dispersal agents and pollinators.

Without pollination, most flowering plants cannot produce seeds or fruit. Bats drink the sweet nectar inside flowers and pick up a dusting of pollen that gets dispersed to other flowers as they feed. And they’re willing to go the distance. Some Mexican species (like lesser long-nosed bats) will fly as much as 20-30 miles to help pollinate cactuses.

“One of the benefits having bats as pollinators compared to some of the other insects is that bats fly long distances; they migrate up and down the country allowing the genes of these plants to be dispersed in more locations,” said Jemison.

Because of bats’ efforts, those bananas that are so essential for everything from delicious pies to post-run snacks are on the shelves at supermarkets. Jemison said bats have been the largest pollinators for wild bananas for more than 50 million years. “They have a really strong odor that is attractive to bats,” she said. Bats also keep our pantries full of peaches, durian, cloves, carob, balsa wood, agave and rice. We can also thank the mammals for favorite guilty pleasures including coffee, nuts, spirits like tequila and even chocolate.

“When you sit down to the dinner table you may not realize how much nature truly helps our farmers,” said Jemison. “While bees and birds help to pollinate crops and eat pests during the day, it is the bats that take on the night shift. Many of the foods that we take for granted would require much more pesticides to produce or even wouldn’t exist at all if not for our bats.”

Bats are as fearless as they are hard-working. Jemison said they go into areas other animals usually don’t, such as ravaged forests, a quality that has earned them a reputation for being the “farmers of the tropics.”

“Typically they’re one of the first animals to help regenerate forests; dispersing seeds in spaces that may have been cleared by us humans—because they don’t have any qualms about venturing into new landscapes.”

And where there’s trees, there’s insects, like the real villains: those blood-sucking mosquitos that spook us all summer long.