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There is a concerning issue with bats, which is unfavorable for those who enjoy mezcal, rice, or avocado.
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. There is a concerning issue with bats, which is unfavorable for those who enjoy mezcal, rice, or avocado.

Bats may deserve a thank-you if you have ever found pleasure in coffee, tomatoes, corn, bananas, mangoes, walnuts, chocolate, tequila, or mezcal.

Although bats are often associated with fear and negativity, being featured in Halloween decorations and associated with ominous events, their existence is actually indicative of a flourishing environment. Many of our preferred foods and beverages would be scarce or nonexistent without their presence.

Bats have several important roles in the food systems of humans. They can act as a natural form of pest control by consuming insects that can harm crops such as corn and pecans. Some species also serve as pollinators for plants like bananas, coconuts, avocados, and agave, similar to the roles of bees and butterflies. Fruit-eating bats also play a crucial role in the dispersal of seeds for wild plants, including popular fruits like mangoes, cashews, figs, and almonds.

An image of a blue sky at twilight, with a few wispy clouds, and a large group of shadowed bats.View image in fullscreen

According to Kristen Lear, who is employed at Bat Conservation International, although bats play a crucial role in sustaining ecosystems, they are often neglected in discussions about conservation and in people’s perceptions of what is necessary to support sustainable food systems. This could be due to the difficulty of observing them as they are nocturnal animals, or because they are commonly associated with scary things. However, considering the increasing threats of habitat loss, disease, and climate change, it is important for bats to be recognized and championed.

No bats, no tequila

When you order a margarita, you usually don’t consider bats – however, you should. Tequila is produced from agave which depends on bats for pollination and spreading seeds.

The small, furry Mexican long-nosed bat has evolved alongside agave for countless years. Using its 3-inch tongue, it drinks nectar from agave flowers that blossom at night. This type of bat migrates from west Texas and southern New Mexico to Mexico annually, following the blooming cycles of agave and cacti.

However, as the desire for tequila and mezcal, an alcoholic beverage made from agave, grows, the plant is being harvested on a larger scale, posing a threat to the migratory bats. Despite being cherished in Mexico for many centuries, agave-based spirits are gaining popularity globally, particularly in the United States, where approximately 80% of the world’s tequila is consumed.

According to Diana Pinzón, a forestry engineer working with small-scale mezcal producers, there has been a recent surge in popularity for agave spirits from Mexico. Although this trend may have begun a decade ago, it has become more heightened in the past four to five years. Unfortunately, this has caused significant concerns for the native agaves in Mexico, as well as the bats and other wildlife in the surrounding ecosystems where they grow.

In a studio shot, with a high flash and a black background, a small fuzzy brown bat with wing extended perches on a green clump of buds, with a handful of yellow flowers coming out of them.

Please enlarge the image for a full view.

The demand for agave-based drinks in the US, as well as the potential profits they bring, is causing growers to harvest in a way that is not environmentally sustainable in the long run, according to Pinzón. In some areas, agave plants are cut down before they have a chance to bloom, resulting in a decrease of nectar for bats that depend on them for food.

Producers can grow new agave by working with “baby” shoots sent out by parent plants, but without bats cross-pollinating them, the new plants are all clones and lose genetic diversity over time. Pinzón fears this will make the plants less resilient in the face of climate threats and extreme weather.

According to her, these two types of organisms have coevolved for the past 10 million years. If one is lost, the other will also be lost.

Pinzón is establishing a boutique brand known as Zinacantán Mezcal in collaboration with a fourth-generation agave farmer who intentionally leaves 20% of the harvest in the field for bat consumption. This partnership is driven by the belief that regulating the production of agave-based drinks is crucial for maintaining sustainable practices.

Using a comparison to cars in the city, the speaker explains that constructing a new freeway to alleviate traffic only results in more cars on the road. Therefore, any new agave projects should have regulations in place, specifying the maximum quantity of spirits that can be produced each year. This is necessary to acknowledge and address the negative effects we have on the environment.

The bug-eaters

Since 1998, Troy Swift has been cultivating pecans in Texas. However, the idea of constructing bat residences near his orchards only occurred to him recently. This idea was initially proposed by Merlin Tuttle, a renowned conservationist and avid supporter of bats, during a visit to Swift’s farm. Tuttle suggested, “Troy, with the diverse range of species present here, you should consider incorporating bats into your pest management strategy.” Swift remembered this advice and took it into consideration.

Swift quickly began constructing his own shelters for bats and in just half a year, they had already taken up residence. He currently has 17 bat houses on his land and is collaborating with Tuttle’s group to assess the bats’ impact on his harvest. Utilizing acoustic technology and analyzing bat feces samples, they have discovered that there are at least seven different bat species inhabiting Swift’s farm. Furthermore, they observed that in a span of six weeks, the bats had consumed over 100 types of insects.

a bat flies over waterView image in fullscreen

Scientists are currently working on collecting sufficient evidence to determine the bats’ effectiveness in managing harmful pests that feed on pecan trees. Despite not having concrete proof yet, discovering that bats consume mosquitoes, flies, and pests that cause trouble for livestock has persuaded Swift that they can be beneficial on farms.

According to Swift, our goal is to utilize bats in all aspects of agriculture and educate farmers on the fact that these bats are beneficial allies.

Previous research has determined that bats play a vital role in providing farmers with natural pest control, even if the farmers are not aware of it. According to biologist Jade Florence, bats save the US corn industry over $1 billion annually by preventing crop damage and reducing the need for pesticides. This adds up to over $3 billion in savings for all agricultural production. Florence works with the US Fish and Wildlife Service on efforts to protect bat populations.

Having bats in the vicinity, regardless of their feeding habits, can effectively manage pests, as stated by Lear from Bat Conservation International. She noted, “Just having bats present in farming areas can decrease the presence of these insects.”

Bats are in danger due to various threats such as habitat loss, disease, and human persecution. Here are some ways to help protect bats:

1. Preserve Bat Habitats: Bats need safe and undisturbed places to roost and hibernate. By preserving their habitats, we can ensure that they have a place to call home.

2. Reduce Pesticide Use: Pesticides can be harmful to bats and their food sources. By minimizing pesticide use, we can help keep bat populations healthy.

3. Educate Others: Many people have misconceptions about bats and may harm or fear them unnecessarily. By educating others about the important role bats play in our ecosystems, we can dispel these myths and promote bat conservation.

How to Aid Endangered Bats
Bats are currently facing serious threats from habitat loss, disease, and human mistreatment. Consider implementing the following strategies to support bat conservation efforts:

1. Preserve Bat Habitats: To ensure bats have a safe place to live and hibernate, it is crucial to protect their habitats from disturbance and destruction.

2. Minimize Pesticide Use: Excessive pesticide use can harm both bats and their food sources, making it essential to limit its use to preserve healthy bat populations.

3. Educate Others: Many people have misconceptions about bats that may lead to unnecessary harm and fear towards them. By educating others about the important role bats have in our ecosystems, we can dispel these myths and encourage bat protection.

Bats, despite their positive impact on food systems, are facing multiple challenges. Lear stated that various species, even in the US, are experiencing loss of their roost sites in caves, mines, and trees, as well as loss of suitable foraging areas such as forests or agricultural land with abundant insect populations. In addition, bats are also threatened by the climate crisis, which leads to extreme weather events, and by diseases like white-nose syndrome. This fungal disease has greatly reduced bat populations in North America.

In a wildlife shot taken in a cave of pinkish-grayish stone, a cluster of 6-8 bats hang from the slanted ceiling.View image in fullscreen

What steps can be taken to address this issue? Lear has collaborated with 60 partners in the US and Mexico to plant 115,000 agave plants along the migratory route of Mexican long-nosed bats. Her organization suggests responsibly interacting with nature, such as adhering to cave closures to prevent introducing new diseases to bat populations, safeguarding mature trees that can serve as bat roosts, keeping cats indoors to avoid harming bats, and providing a water source in dry regions.

People who want to go one step further can build or buy a bat house and plant a bat-friendly garden with some native night-blooming flowers to attract nocturnal insects that bats can feed on. (Besides having a positive ecological benefit, “it’s just fun” having bats around, said Swift, who loves watching them emerge at dusk to hunt insects.)

According to Lear, another way to contribute is by discussing the importance of bats to our environment. By spreading awareness to those close to us, we can make a positive impact on their understanding and ultimately gain public support for bat conservation.

Source: theguardian.com