New Zealand’s National Bird of the year is… the Long-Tailed Bat! Yes, this is a fact. Annually the New Zealand conservation group “Forest and Bird” conducts this contest which raises awareness of the natural beauty, environmental concerns, and habitat preservation on the island nation. Native species threatened by loss of habitat or other actions are highlighted in this annual contest and the publicity surrounding it.
Nearly 60,000 voters participated in the contest and learned a lot about the Long-Tailed Bat during the publicity the contest stirred up. While listening to this story reported on the radio, as I drove to get some photos of a pollinator garden sporting the first frost on leaves, stems, and remaining petals of flowers, I was reminded of the importance of bats in our ecosystems. I thought the bats we know in New England could use the publicity the New Zealand Bird of the Year generated in its radical move to include bats in the election process, while educating more people about the role bats play in the ecosystem.
We often speak of bats as important pollinators, and we learn they are doing this important work during the night, as do many moths. Perhaps it’s the fact they do this important work during the darkness that contributes to their mystery and association with spooky stories. In the US, nighttime pollination work by bats only occurs in the desert Southwest, with large pale or white flowers which measure 1″-3.5″ and are associated with the saguaro cacti and agave, for instance.
Why do we care so much about the nighttime pollination work bats accomplish? Worldwide, their pollination is responsible for a variety of food! We have bats to thank for our bananas, guava, cashews, dates, figs, sugar, corn, agave, and cacao. Besides pollination, bats around the world are helping fertilize acre after acre of fields and agricultural areas by their guano, or bat poop. Another benefit of a healthy bat population we need to be mindful of and respectful of is the way they eat half their body weight in insects every night.
EVERY NIGHT! Imagine the ways we feel about battling against mosquitoes, and now imagine if there were no bats helping keep that population in check. They are a natural mosquito abatement program, so that’s where landscapers can play an important role in educating about the beneficial aspects of bats in our yards, gardens, landscapes, and environment. The US Department of Agriculture has estimated more than $25B savings to the ag industry because of the way the bats help control insect populations, including various beetles and other insects, so crops are not destroyed. Bats devouring hornworms and other pests related to those save the large tomato production facilities – another example of the benefits they bring to our tables, if not our gardens. On the major scale, such as the vegetable production sites, bats are indispensable – so imagine how your garden benefits on its scale with a healthy bat population at work while you relax or sleep.
You can help draw attention to bats as indicators of a vibrant and healthy ecosystem by learning more and sharing more about bats. For instance, while they can carry rabies, far fewer bats have rabies than racoons, squirrels, chipmunks, and skunks combined. Those mammals are more likely to come across you gardening or leave behind contaminated traces of rabies on your shovels or gloves than any bat would.
Share facts about bats such as bat excrement serves to provide healthy medium for forests and gardens – without any fillers, it is 10% nitrogen, 3% phosphorus and 1% potassium. It has long term residual effects in soil, providing an environment for healthy breakdown and microbial growth in our forests.
Like any critters in our gardens, they need food, water and shelter. The food part is handily taken care of by the abundance of insects they feed on. Water should be provided for many creatures in our gardens, so check bird baths for fresh water in the mornings as bats may have visited your bird bath in the night.
As for shelter, adding a bat house to your clients’ garden décor is an easy option. Fastening this shelter to the south side of a building, tree or designated pole will offer a home gathering warmth from the sun. With a preferred height of 12′-18′ the shelter will be safe from most predators.
Plenty of shelter is offered by certain trees, too! If there are shaggy barked trees in the vicinity, there’s a good chance bats are roosting under the peeled bark on a regular basis. Trees which appear dead offer great habitat too, in the hollow areas that are dying naturally and the decaying process evolves. If a snag tree is safe, suggest to your customers they be left standing so various wildlife, mosses, and compost processes can live healthfully and vibrantly on that trunk. If it’s safer to drop the tree, consider leaving a portion of it in place, to slowly decay and offer those same benefits to the environment and natural habitat creation process.
Customers can have a lot of concerns about bats on their property which you can help dispel, but when bats take up residence in a home, garage or garden shed, that’s a different story. There are laws protecting bats which are stringent and clearly protect bats for all the reasons listed in this article so far. Exceptions include when bats are a threat to health or safety of residents. Check with wildlife removal experts about what to do to exclude bats from properties in those instances. The wildlife experts (including Fish and Game, along with private businesses with that specialty) know the times of year they can strategically create barriers to entry for the bats, among other considerations. Working in tandem with people with that expertise can be a great benefit to your customers with you as the landscaper offering yet more insight, understanding, and expertise about their home and gardens.
Where to go from here? Learn what you can about bats and share that knowledge when it comes up in discussion with your clients. Easy to access information is available from the US Department of the Interior, the US Forest Service, and the association Bat Conservation International. Check those on the web for fact sheets, informative videos, and articles on current research about bats and our ecosystems and human health. Reading about research on bats as vectors for diseases such as SARS can help you understand the realities, data, and dispel myths about ways diseases are spread alongside the reality that more diseases are being spread, perhaps, zoonotically (pathogens jumping from animals to humans.)
Bats in our neighborhoods, gardens and landscapes, let alone on farms and ranches, deserve our toast to a healthy environment the next time we enjoy many tropical fruits, nuts, or . . .a margarita made with tequila, thanks to the agave!
— by Cris Blackstone. Cris Blackstone, NHCLP, is a member of Newmarket Conservation Commission; Supervisor on Rockingham Conservation District; Board Member for NH Association of Conservation Commissions; and member of Garden Communicators International Sustainability Committee.