We need to talk about the birds and the bees. That’s not a euphemism — we’re literally talking about pollinators, those busy creatures whose flitting about helps flowering plants reproduce.
Some of the planet’s most important pollinators have been in dangerous decline in recent years, fueling a surge in the popularity of what’s known as pollinator gardening, the intentional cultivation of specific plants to attract and nurture pollinators. The trend took off in 2018 with a push to help butterflies, and then broadened in 2019, when many gardeners turned their attention to bees, whose populations were dropping precipitously.
But one especially productive pollinator that hasn’t gotten quite as much love — and really should — is the bat.
Much like the endangered arthropods that generated so much buzz in 2019, many species of bat are in big trouble, in no small part due to habitat loss. But the deadliest culprit of late is a disease called white-nose syndrome (WNS). Since its discovery in 2006, the fungal illness has killed at least 7 million bats in North America, making it one of the deadliest wildlife diseases of modern times.
WNS has no known treatment or means of prevention, and scientists predict some species, including one of Michigan’s most common, the little brown bat, could be extinct in as little as seven years.
Though the outlook for bats is bleak, pollinator gardening, which aims to replace habitats lost to deforestation with inhabitable urban and suburban spaces, could help. Plus, it comes with plenty of perks for its human practitioners.
While some people fearfully think of bats as winged bloodsuckers that threaten to assail their hairdos (both largely myths, by the way), bats play a number of vital roles in the environment. More than 500 plant species rely on bats to reproduce. The creatures flit from bloom to bloom to slurp up nectar, disseminating the pollen that clings to their fur as they go.
These powerful pollination abilities can benefit our own gardens as well, but they aren’t the only perk bats offer our backyards. Their guano, or excrement, is a potent fertilizer, bearing such nutrients as nitrogen and phosphorus, which promote rapid growth of lawns, trees, and flowering plants. With a slower rate of decomposition than most inorganic fertilizers, guano also enriches soil for longer periods of time.
Beyond that, bats’ eating habits greatly curb the populations of plant-devouring insects such as cutworm moths, chafer beetles, potato beetles, and spotted cucumber beetles, which can decimate a garden. While that’s nice for our squash and tomato plants, it’s even more vital to ecosystems more broadly and to economies around the world. The flying mammals defend crops that would otherwise be destroyed or cost farmers a collective $53 billion per year in pesticides, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
For these reasons, organizations in various countries are promoting bat preservation efforts, including the widespread installation of bat houses, a small step we can take in our own backyards to protect an oft-maligned critter that could use all the help it can get.
How to Make a Space for Bats
Bat houses should be mounted in an area facing either east or south that gets six to eight hours of direct sunlight daily.
Select plants that attract bats, such as dahlia, French marigold, nicotiana, evening primrose, thyme, raspberry, and honeysuckle.
Try to provide a water source, such as a large birdbath or artificial pond.
Mount the house 20 to 30 feet above ground. Because bats can’t fly from a stationary position, they won’t inhabit a dwelling that doesn’t allow for an adequate drop.
A bat house in a tree invites predators. Instead, attach it to your home, which will lend some of its warmth to the colony.
Choose a house that accommodates 80 to 100 bats, and paint it dark brown or black. In Michigan’s cooler climate, these shades promote optimal warmth.