Home+Garden: Backyard Bats
These nocturnal winged mammals are beneficial for your health and for the environment.
Bats often get a bad rap as creepy, blood-sucking harbingers of disease. In reality, Florida bats easily earn their keep in our backyards as the ultimate green—and black—form of pest control.
“Bats are the single most important predator of night-flying insects, and all the bats native to Florida are insectivores,” says Florida Bat Conservancy President Shari Blissett-Clark. “Each bat consumes the equivalent of approximately its own weight in insects every night, all year long.”
With 15 to 20 percent of a bat’s diet consisting of mosquitoes, this reduces transmission of mosquito-borne illnesses such as West Nile Virus, encephalitis and the Zika virus. “Bats help guard human health by balancing insect populations and reducing the need for pesticides that pose a threat to humans as well as wildlife,” says Blissett-Clark. “And bats do not become ill if they eat a mosquito that is carrying a parasite, virus or bacteria.”
Gardeners and farmers have cause to celebrate when bats take up residence nearby, according to University of Florida associate professor and extension specialist Dr. Holly Ober, who says the bats’ calls alone can spook insects and act as a repellent.
“Some of the favorite insects of bats are moths and beetles. Moths in particular can be damaging to many of the crops grown by farmers and gardeners in the Southeast, such as corn, soybeans, cotton and pecans,” she says.
Because bats protect crops from pests without the use of insecticides, “this helps the farmer reduce his costs, keeps the soil and water alive with beneficial organisms, and removes toxins from our diets,” Blissett-Clark adds. “Green living is sustainable living, and bats play an important role in this effort.”
One unexpected benefit to landscape and garden health is that “many plants”—including banana and mango trees—“rely on bats to spread their seeds and to pollinate flowers,” says Laura Finn, a bat specialist and founder of Fly By Night, Inc., of Osteen.
To attract bats to your yard, Ober recommends providing a bat-friendly natural habitat. “Some bats like to roost in cavities in trees, others in the foliage of trees, and others in the space created when bark begins to peel off the trunks of trees,” she says. “Some bats prefer to rest in the midst of dead palm fronds or in clumps of Spanish moss.” If you want to provide potential bat roosting sites, Ober suggests leaving dead and dying trees on your property, if at all possible.
Finn, whose University of Central Florida master’s thesis was based on bats’ roosting habits, advocates for backyard bat houses, which she says are necessary for bats to thrive. “Basically, they are like us. They want a nice, dry home that is easy to get in and out of, safe from predators, that keeps them warm but not too hot, and has good ventilation,” she says.
Finn recommends large pole-mounted houses with a southeast/northwest orientation. “Bat houses installed on trees have a low occupancy and are vulnerable to predators,” she warns.
Bats are more than helpful. They’re also entertaining, says Ober. “Watching bats leave their roost at sunset to begin feeding for the night can be a fun family activity at sunset.”
Bring your kids to a Bat House Building Workshop, October 14 at the Central Florida Zoo in Sanford. Register at centralfloridazoo.org