By Debbie Roland and Emmy Ulmschneider, Master Gardeners
One of my childhood memories is that of watching bats catching their evening meal on a warm summer night. After I moved to West Texas, I went to Carlsbad Caverns to watch the evening bat flight when thousands of Mexican freetail bats leave and provide pest control to neighboring agricultural areas. In Midland, I have witnessed the magic of evening bat flight as bats leave from a highway overpass.
But before we talk about Texas bats, let’s separate facts from fear: Bats have more to fear from human beings then we do from bats. We have all heard stories depicting bats as aggressive or disease ridden, and this misinformation produces the fear we have. Like any wild animal, they should be treated with respect and caution. Just as you would avoid contact with a sick fox, one should avoid contact with a sick or downed bat.
It is hard to put a dollar value on the ecosystem services such as pollination, pest management and seed dispersal that bats provide. A bat can eat one-half of its body weight every night providing $750,000.00 in value to Texas agriculture, mostly in insect control.
It may make you smile to know that Mexico’s tequila industry depends upon pollinator bats, including the Mexican long-nosed bat (found in far West Texas), to pollinate the agave plants from which tequila is made. And that is before you consider the mining of guano and the “tourist” value of bat populations. Texas legacy, Dr. Merlin Tuttle, has devoted his life to the study and protection of bats around the world. For more on his amazing journey check out: https://www.merlintuttle.org/ and https://www.batcon.org/
There are roughly 47 bat species in North America. The Mexican free-tail bat is the most prevalent of the 33 permanent and migratory bat species in Texas and has a huge range in North and South America. The largest biodiversity of bats is in Central Texas, and some of the rarer species can be found along the Texas-Mexico border. But outside San Antonio in Comal County, sits Bracken Cave which is home to the largest colony of bats specifically 20 million Mexican free-tailed bats, in North America.
So, what is the fate of bats? Loss of habitat, pesticide use, and extermination by humans have all taken their toll. But, in North America, white-nose symptom (WNS), a fungal disease that attacks hibernating bats, has killed millions of bats, in some bat caves killing most of the bat population. Be mindful of pesticide use and removing habitat. Bats are here working for you.
If you have questions, please call the AgriLife office in Odessa at 498-4071 or in Midland at 686-4700 for more gardening information. Additional information is available at https://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu and westtexasgardening.org.