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Ask a Master Gardener- Bats in the Landscape

Updated: Oct 24, 2021

By: Jennifer McDonald, Mobile County Master Gardener

It was a dark October night, with fog hanging in the air like smoke, and chilly gusts of wind sending newly fallen leaves dancing in the darkness. Hungry eyes watched from the shadows as the girl walked past along the empty street. He stepped forward from his hiding spot in the trees, almost tasting his lovely young prey on his sharp teeth already.

Just as he prepared to leap, a car turned the corner, bright lights cutting through the darkness and fog, illuminating his sinister silhouette. “Not yet,” he thought. He lifted his arms, spread his cloak like dark wings, and flew off into the night, suddenly smaller than the bag the girl carried on her arm.

Bats became associated with vampires in popular culture thanks to Bram Stoker’s fictional “Dracula,” with help from the very real vampire bat, which consumes the blood of cows, pigs, and horses, often without them noticing. Aside from the three species of bats that consume blood, none of which live in North America, there are over a thousand more species that eat insects and fruit instead.

Bats, the only flying mammals in the world, are victims of numerous misconceptions. Despite the common phrase “blind as a bat,” they are not blind at all, but they do rely on sonar to hunt in the dark. They emit high-pitched sounds that bounce off trees and other objects, allowing them to navigate their surroundings.

Unfortunately, many people are terrified of these gentle creatures. One of the most common fears is their potential for carrying rabies, which can be dangerous to humans and pets. Just weeks ago, an Illinois man died after declining treatment when an infected bat bit his neck after getting into his bedroom.

While the story is alarming, it is important to note that this was the state’s first case of rabies infecting a human in nearly seventy years. The majority of bats do not have rabies, and they generally have no interest in confronting humans anyway.

To play it safe, bats that find their way into your home should be removed by a professional. Outdoor bats should be no cause for concern, and can be an interesting and useful addition to your landscape!

Bats play an important role in a healthy ecosystem. These nocturnal creatures can eat over 500 insects per hour, all night long, substantially reducing the population of mosquitos and other non-beneficial insects in your yard. They save the agricultural industry from billions of dollars in crop damage, substantially reducing pesticides needed to protect crops.

They also play an important role in pollination and seed disbursement. They regularly pollinate over 700 plants, many of which are important foods, and they are the sole pollinator for agave, an important ingredient in tequila. So, if you love margaritas and hate mosquitos, bats are your pals!

Sadly, bat populations are declining across the world and more than 30 species are listed under the Endangered Species Act. One of their greatest threats is a fungal disease known as White Nose Syndrome, which has killed millions of bats since its discovery. The disease has made its way to Alabama and is threatening some of the 15 species of bats in our state.

Scientists are seeing an alarming decline in certain species so conservation is critical. Providing a good shelter on your property is a great way to help promote a healthy bat population.

One possibility is leaving dead trees standing, since bats love sheltering in hollow trees and under loose bark. One of the easiest ways to attract them is to build or purchase a bat house, which can be found at home improvement stores or online. Install them up high on poles or buildings to make them easy to spot.

Bats need a clean water source nearby, such as a pond or bird bath, and prefer dark areas. They love to be near a garden; even better if it has fragrant plants that bloom at night. They also need a warm place to roost, so it is preferable to avoid the north side of the house.

It’s important to note that bats prefer to find new roosts on their own, so capturing and moving them to a new location is unlikely to be successful. You may have to experiment with different locations for a while before you attract your fascinating new inhabitants, but it’s worth the effort.

Unless, of course, you notice your new friends transforming into tall, cloaked men who only come out at night . . .

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