Bats are among the most misunderstood creatures on the planet. For centuries, these flying mammals have been associated with evil and death and reviled as carriers of disease. The media perpetuates these myths, portraying them as blood-sucking, rabies-infected vermin, giving a bum rap to creatures that really do a lot of good. However, in the last couple of decades, thanks to the efforts of conservation groups and federal and state wildlife agencies, bats are being seen in a different light for the valuable role they play in the ecosystem. Having bats on the homestead is a great benefit to the eco-friendly homesteader.
North America is home to 47 species of bats. Most are insect-eaters, the exception being three species found in Arizona, California, and Texas that feed on nectar and pollen. Texas holds the title of “battiest” state in the union—32 bat species call the Lone Star State home at various times of the year. According to Bat Conservation International, bats make up about one-fifth of the world’s mammal population.
They are nocturnal, hunting in the dim hours between sunset and sunrise. Contrary to popular perception, bats are not blind. They can see, though most bat species use a form of sonar known as echolocation, a sensory system where they literally hear their way through the night sky, crying out through the darkness in high-pitched (ultrasonic) noises and listening for the echoes to return. The sound waves bounce off insects and solid objects and send back a “picture” of sorts that helps the bat navigate in the dark.
As the primary predators of night-flying insects, bats are critical to reducing insect pest populations, including those pesky mosquitoes that take some of the fun out of being outdoors in the summer, and bring us such mosquito-borne diseases as West Nile and Zika virus, among others. Bats on the homestead, and around the world, are part of a healthy ecosystem and integral to the balance of nature. Without them, we would be overrun with insect pests and forced to use more and stronger pesticides that also kill beneficial insects like bees, ladybugs, and dragonflies.
Brown and Red Bats
The most common of native North American species, the big brown bat, is found in every part of the country except for the southern portions of Florida and Texas. Russet to dark brown in color, this bat averages between four and five inches in length with a wingspan of about 13 inches. Their favorite roosts include attics, barns, bell towers, behind window shutters, and man-made bat houses. These efficient feeders prey on a wide variety of nocturnal insects including June bugs, flies, beetles, moths, and mosquitoes.
Little brown bats look a lot like big browns, but smaller, between three and three and a half inches long. Common throughout most of the country, they can be identified on the wing by their swift, erratic flight. They voraciously consume thousands of insects in one outing, eating as many as 1,000 insects in an hour! Mated females form maternity colonies inside abandoned buildings, hollow trees, rock crevices, or similar areas. Males and unmated females roost under shingles, the eaves of buildings, loose tree bark, and rock outcroppings.
Every summer, a small number of little brown bats take up residence in our porch eaves. Over the last few years, we let our property grow up to create a diversity of food, habitat, and cover to attract bats and other wildlife. Our neighbor’s pond helps to lure bats to the homestead by attracting many of the water-breeding insects on their menu. We embrace these insect-eating machines that spend their nightly forays dining on mosquitoes, stink bugs, moths, beetles, and a host of other insect pests. In fall, when the nights start getting colder and insects get hard to find, our furry visitors fly off to their winter hibernation site to wait for spring.
One of North America’s most colorful bats, the eastern red bat, ranges in color from rusty red to yellow-brown. Long, pointed ears and swift flight at low levels mark this bat as it forages for crickets, flies, beetles, and cicadas. They are known for congregating around corn cribs, where, much to the delight of farmers, they feast on grain moths. Red bats are found in wooded areas east of the Rocky Mountains from Canada to as far south as central Florida, roosting in trees where they resemble dead leaves or pine cones.
Free-tailed and Long-nosed Bats
The Mexican free-tailed bat is found at lower elevations throughout California, across southern Nevada, and southern Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and parts of Oklahoma. Colonies are also found throughout the southeastern U. S. from Mississippi down through Florida and over to South Carolina. Their colonies can number in the millions. Besides caves, free-tailed bats roost in culverts, old buildings, tunnels, and under bridges. With their long, narrow wings, Mexican free-tailed bats are speedsters in the bat world, designed for fast, long-distance flight. They get their name from their tail, which extends freely beyond the membrane connecting their tail to their hind legs.
When hungry free-tails come out at sundown, humans reap the benefit. In central Texas, for example, 100 million free-tailed bats emerge from Bracken Cave every night to cruise over lawns, gardens, farm fields, and orchards, gobbling up insect pests. According to Fran Hutchins, director of the Bracken Cave Preserve, “As the bats munch their way through nearly 300,000 pounds of bugs each and every night during the growing season, they provide a huge service to U.S. agricultural communities.” And that’s not all. Studies revealed that these free-tailed bats were eating 44 different agricultural pests, 20 of which are migratory, meaning that the bats are having an invisible effect, intercepting vast insect migrations from reaching downwind crop areas, places that may never see bats.
Long-nosed bats are a keystone species in the Sonoran Desert ecosystem of the southwestern U.S. The bat’s head shape and long tongue allow it to delve into flower blossoms and extract both pollen and nectar. As they travel from flower to flower, they transfer pollen that becomes attached to their bodies, which causes the plants to produce fruit. Worldwide, over 500 species of plants rely on bats for pollination, many of which we use for food and medicine. In addition, bees, moths, lizards, and many birds depend on plants pollinated by long-nosed bats, either for food or shelter. If they were to disappear, there would be a serious disruption to the region’s ecosystem.
Because bats have highly-specialized habitat requirements, they do not adjust well to environmental changes. Most produce only one offspring per breeding season, and they often live in large colonies that can be wiped out in a single catastrophe, leaving them extremely vulnerable to extinction. With many species suffering population declines due to loss of roosting habitat, loss of wetlands (which serve as insect-breeding grounds), and pesticide poisoning, homesteaders can do their part to encourage bats by making their landscape more bat-friendly.
Welcoming bats to the homestead will pay dividends in terms of organic pest control. These winged wonders play an important role in nature’s systems of checks and balances. In a healthy, diverse ecosystem, for every insect pest we might find, there is a natural predator. One of these is the silent hunter of the night, the underappreciated bat.
How You Can Help Bats on the Homestead
As more and more land is gobbled up by development every day, bats are losing suitable habitat. People can help provide these useful creatures with places to live and feed by making a few adaptations to their landscape.
- Bats will live in man-made bat houses if they are placed on a south-facing structure away from natural predators. Bat houses and kits can be purchased online, or you can make your own using plans from Bat Conservation International.
- Bats prefer habitat with a mix of open and wooded areas. Plant a variety of perennials, herbs, and night-blooming flowers like moonflower, yucca, datura, evening primrose, cleome, nicotiana, night-blooming jessamine to lure nocturnal insects.
- Bats are drawn to aquatic areas, where insect populations tend to be greater. Adding a pond or wetland to your landscape will help to ensure lucrative foraging for bats. They will also make use of a birdbath.
- Avoid using pesticides that can harm nontarget organisms such as bats and other wildlife. Some pesticides are more “environmentally friendly” than others, and should be considered for sites where bats are known to forage.