What do bats pollinate?

Bats as pollinators

Many people are unaware that over 500 plant species rely on bats to pollinate their flowers, including species of mango, banana, durian, guava and agave (used to make tequila). So, next time you drink some tequila or eat a mango, say thanks to the bats! The pollination of plants by bats is called chiropterophily.

Plants pollinated by bats often have pale nocturnal flowers (in contrast, bees are mostly attracted to bright, daytime flowers). These flowers are often large and bell shaped, and some bats have evolved specifically to reach the nectar at the bottom of them. The tube-lipped nectar bat of Ecuador and the banana bat that lives only on the Pacific coast of Mexico both have extraordinarily long tongues for this exact reason. The tube-lipped nectar bat’s tongue is more than one and a half times the length of its body!

While these plants rely on bats to pollinate their flowers, bats also rely on the fruit and flowers of these plants to survive. Disturbing this intricate system can have severe consequences. For example, in Mexico, the lesser long-nosed bat that is partly responsible for the pollination of agave plants, used to make mescal and tequila. However, in the majority of tequila production, farmers harvest the plant before it puts out its flowers, meaning it has to reproduce through cloning. This is bad for bats, as they feed on the flowers as well as pollinating them. It’s also bad for the agave crops, as they lack diversity – all tequila plants in one farming area have been traced to less than a handful of clones. Disease has recently killed off more than a third of the agave plants in some areas, something that might have been avoided by allowing more agave plants to flower and reproduce through pollination. Read more on our blog.

Bats

  • Bats are very important pollinators in tropical and desert climates.
  • They feed on the insects in the flowers as well as on the nectar and flower parts.
  • Over 300 species of fruit depend on bats for pollination.
  • The Agave plant and the Saguaro also depend upon bats for pollination.
  • Many of the more than 1,300 bat species consume vast amounts of insects every night, including some of the most damaging agricultural pests, such as codling moths in California walnut orchards.
  • Pregnant or nursing mothers of some bat species will consume up to their body weight in insects each night.
  • Fruit-eating bats in the tropics disperse seeds that are critical to restoring cleared or damaged rainforests.
  • Even bat droppings (called guano) are valuable as a rich natural fertilizer.
  • The flowers that are visited by bats are usually open at night, large, pale or white so they are easier to see at night, very fragrant and have lots of nectar.
  • Bats will feed on the insects within the flowers as well as the nectar and flower parts.

Sources Cited:

Bat Conservation International

USDA Forest Service: Bat Pollination

Bat-loving Flowers

More than 500 species of tropical plants are pollinated by nectar- and pollen-eating bats, and they have evolved special features to make their nectar and pollen attractive to the nocturnal flyers. Such plants are called chiropterophilous, or “bat-loving” (bats being mammals of the order Chiroptera). Plants that rely primarily on bat pollinators cater to them with large, white flowers, which bats can spot easily at night. The flowers often have a fermented or musky odour, and they tend to open after sunset, just as bats leave their day roosts to feed. In order to accommodate a bat’s face, many bat-pollinated flowers are shaped like a vase, although some are flat and brushy in order to load a bat’s whiskers with pollen.

Chiropterophilous plants even manufacture substances that are useless to the plant itself but helpful to the bat. Because bats often eat the pollen as well as the nectar of their flowers, the pollen of bat-loving plants is high in protein and contains two amino acids, tyrosine and proline, that are crucial to bat health. Proline is important in building strong wing and tail membranes, and tyrosine is essential for milk production.

Nectar-eating bats (of which there are more than 30 genera) have special adaptations also. They tend to have fleshy bristles on their long tongues, as do many bees, to scoop out pollen as well as nectar. They have good eyesight and a fine sense of smell; often their sonar is reduced. Migratory bats pollinate a variety of species as they travel, and plants are often seen to flower in sequence along a sort of “nectar corridor” corresponding to the bats’ migratory route.

The Echo

Bats Love to Pollinate

Published on June 18, 2018
Written by Merrill Read

Plants don’t just simply grow, they have a lot of help. Whether it’s sunlight, rich soil, or a good rain storm, there are plenty of support systems that help plants grow all over the world. For a lot of plants, a vital support system is bats.

Lesser long-nosed bat feeding on an agave blossom
(Leptonycteris yerbabuenae).
Courtesy of Bruce D. Taubert

There are more than 530 species of flowering plants that rely on bats as either their major or exclusive pollinators. Some of these plants include agave (which are harvested to supply the multimillion dollar tequila industry), bananas, and balsa trees (which produce the world’s lightest timber). In fact, the relationship between bats and agave are so strong that bat populations fluctuate in size in accordance with the success of agave.

In order for plants to reproduce, pollen must be carried from the male stamen to a female pistil within a plant. Unfortunately, plants can’t meet up easily as they are rooted to the ground, so they rely on others such as hummingbirds, bees, and bats to move their pollen for them.

The bat pollination process:
1. A bats flies to a plant to drink nectar from the flowers.
2. Pollen sticks to the hairs on their body.
3. The bat flies to another plant for more food.
4. The bat transfers the pollen from his body to the new plant.

Bats have an advantage as far as pollinating goes because they are very mobile creatures and can fly farther than the average insect. The Phyllostomid family of bats can transport up to 800m between trees in Puerto Rico and leaf-nosed bats (Phyllostomus sp.) in Brazil can transport pollen up to 18km between trees. Bat pollination increases the plants’ resistance to pests and disease as well as assists in reproduction.

The relationship between bats and plants is give and take. Some plants, like four species of Venezuelan columnar cacti (Stenocereus griseus, Pilosocereus moritzianus, Subpilocereus repandus, and Subpilocereus horrispinus), have even evolved in size and shape to accommodate bat pollinators. If a couple of plants realize they must accommodate for bats due to the services they provide, then we as humans can too!

Bat Role in Pollination

When we think about pollination, it is typically the birds and the bees that come to mind. Most people have no clue that the bat also places a huge role in that process. This takes place on a very large scale around the world. Some areas do depend on the pollination of bats more than others. They include Africa, Asia, and the Pacific Islands.

Bats help with the pollination of many types of fruit in the world. This includes bananas, mangos, and peaches. It is believed that over 500 different types of tropical plants are pollinated successfully every single year through the bats role. The fact that the bats can fly quite a distance before they drop seeds also helps to keep areas of growth highly diversified.

Bats tend to like flowers that don’t give off strong scents or offer bright colors. This is the opposite of what attracts bees. These types of flowers that the bats like also seem to have lots of nectar offered in them. Many experts believe that the birds and bees take the day shift and the bats take the night shift. Everything that we know about pollination in the day time occurs at night with the bats.

It is believed that over 500 different types of tropical plants are pollinated successfully every single year through the bats role.

What about the birds that have long beaks to get the nectar from flowers? Bats don’t have that feature but they are able to pollinate. The process is one that involved a very long tongue. When the bat isn’t using it, this tongue is rolled up in the body, underneath the rib cage. When they are using it they have complete control over such movements.

Since many bats are migratory in nature, they can carry the pollination process great distances. Their movements are believed to continually introduce new plants to various locations out there. Sometimes the growth of them is successful. Other times it isn’t possible for those types of plants or flowers to grow in the new location. The bottom line though is that the bat really does have a substantial role in overall pollination efforts.

Tequila is a very popular alcoholic product. It is derived from the agave plants. The Mexican Long Tongued Bat is responsible for the majority of the seeds being spread so that these plants can continue to grow.

Even though we do have quite a bit of information about the role of bats and pollination, there is also the fact that we don’t know the full extent of it. Since the timing for the bats to be out is at night there is plenty of activity that takes place under the radar.

In addition bats are also well known for keeping insects and bugs away from crops.

There is still plenty of research that needs to be conducted. Two goals are first to determine all of the entities that are pollinated by the bat. The second is to identify what species of bats are responsible for the pollination in given areas. Such goals though are complex and very time consuming to complete. Still, efforts are moving along in the right direction to make this information accurate and complete.

The fact that bats do so much for pollination is part of the reason why they are protected in many areas. Those with such information realize that if the bats are eliminated in given locations it will severely hinder the development of many plants, fruits, and flowers.

In addition bats are also well known for keeping insects and bugs away from crops. They will eat tons of them annually that would be destroying such crops. Some of the critters that they consume include June Beetles, Stink Bugs, and Corn Worm Moths. Without their help the use of harmful pesticides would significantly increase and be dangerous for humans.

Not Just the Birds and Bees – 6 Fast Facts About Pollinating Bats

By Micaela Jemison

The birds and the bees may rule the daytime, but as soon as the sun sets, it is the bats that get to work pollinating. Worldwide, over 500 species of flowers in at least 67 plant families rely on bats as their major or exclusive pollinators. Not only are these little mammals important for pollinating so many plant species; they can be pretty darn cute too!

1. Not all bats eat insects!

Eating insects is by far the most common diet found among the 1,300 species of bats worldwide, which certainly benefits our farmers in keeping many insect species in check. However the pollinating role many of our nectar-feeding bats play is just as important.

Bats like “Blossum”, a Common Blossom Bat Syconycteris australis from Australia, pollinate the flowers of plants that have evolved to produce nectar to attract them. Scientists believe that many groups of plants have evolved to attract bats, as they are able to carry much larger amounts of pollen in their fur compared to other pollinators. The ability of bats to fly long distances is also another benefit to plants, especially those that occur in low densities or in habitats far apart from each other.

2. Flowers produce a musty, rotten odor to attract bats

While some of the flowers that attract bats can be quite beautiful, you probably wouldn’t want to receive a bouquet of them. To attract these flying mammals flowering plants have evolved a musty or rotten perfume. The smell is created by sulphur-containing compounds, which are uncommon in most floral aromas but have been found in the flowers of many plant species that specialize in bat pollination.

As well as their keen sense of smell, bats also use sight to find nectar-producing flowers. Bat flowers are often white or light-colored in an attempt to stand out against foliage or the night sky, but they also can range from brown and green to pink, fuchsia and yellow. Even though they only open at night, bat flowers are often dull in color, which scientists believe may function more as a camouflage from other visitors than as a visual cue to bats.

3. Some bats use echolocation to find flowers

You may have heard of bats using echolocation to hunt insects, but did you know some bats also use it to find nectar-producing plants? Indeed some plant species have evolved acoustic features in their flowers that make the echo of the bat’s ultrasonic call more conspicuous to their bat pollinators. These flowers often have a bell-shaped concave form, which effectively reflect the sounds the bats emit enabling them bats to easily find flowers in the dense growth of tropical rainforests.

While this helps some species, not all bats use echolocation to find nectar. Within Chiroptera, the mammal order that encompasses all bats, two distinct groups are found. The first are the small, mostly insect eating bats called Microchiroptera (micro-bats), which predominately use echolocation. While species of this group are found worldwide, nectar-feeding bats from this group only inhabit tropical and subtropical regions of the Americas.

The second group is Megachiroptera (mega-bats), a group that includes all the large bats, including flying-foxes, which predominately eat fruit and nectar. Found in the Old World tropics of Africa, Europe, and Asia these bats lack the ability to echolocate, instead relying on their sight and sense of smell to find food. While they depend entirely on vision to negotiate their environment, they appear to do so quite well even in inclement weather and on moonless nights. So the old saying “blind as a bat” really isn’t true!

4. Without bats we would have no tequila

Do you enjoy Tequila? Then you need to raise your glass to the pollinating bats that helped to bring it to us! Tequila is made from the agave plant, which relies solely on bats to pollinate its flowers and reproduce. While the bats certainly drink a lot of nectar from the agave plant, you don’t have to worry about them getting drunk! To make tequila, the base or “heart” of the blue agave plant is steamed and minced before being fermented. This part of the plant is quite removed from the giant flower stalk that the bats come in search of.

5. One species of nectar-feeding bat has the longest mammal tongue in the world

Could you imagine having a tongue that is 9 feet long? That is what it is like for the rare Anoura fistulata, a nectar-feeding bat from South America, which has the longest tongue (proportionally) of all mammals. A. fistulata is only the size of a mouse, but its tongue is around 8.5 centimeters long, making it up to 150% of its body length! With such a long tongue it couldn’t possibly keep all of it in its mouth. Instead, A. fistulata keeps the tongue in its chest, in a cavity between the heart and sternum.

6. Bats service many plants that we use for medicinal, cultural and economic purposes

Did you know that bats almost exclusively pollinate wild bananas, which originate from Southeast Asia? Bats pollinate many ecologically and economically important plants from around the world. The products that we value from these plants are more than just fruits, including fibers and timbers that we use everyday. Flying foxes, nectar and fruit eating mega bats from Australia, pollinate the dry eucalyptus forests, which provide us with timber and oils that are shipped around the world.

Mexican agave plants, a source of fiber and tequila, are solely reliant on the pollination services of several nectar-feeding bats. Many tropical and sub-tropical rainforest ecosystems also rely on bat pollinators to regenerate. Without nectar feeding bats not only would our environment suffer, but our way of living as well!

About the author

Micaela Jemison is a bat ecologist and science communicator. Originally from Australia, Micaela worked for a state government research institute as a wildlife biologist before moving the USA in 2013. She is the Communications Officer for the Australasian Bat Society and is working with Bat Conservation International on conservation projects in the Australasian region. She also is currently a research student at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington DC.

She previously wrote about flying foxes.

Wildlife Facts | bats, flowers, flying foxes, pollination, pollinators

Bat Pollination

Two species of nectar-feeding bats, the lesser long-nosed bat and the Mexican long-tongued bat, migrate north a thousand miles or more every spring from Mexico into Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Both are listed as federally endangered species.

Also see:

  • Pollinator of the Month: Lesser Long-nosed Bat
  • Pollinator of the Month: Mexican Long-tongued Bat

Bat Flowers

The flowers that are visited by bats are typically:

  • Open at night;
  • Large in size (1 to 3.5 inches);
  • Pale or white in color;
  • Very fragrant, a fermenting or fruit-like odor; and/or
  • Copious dilute nectar.

Bats feed on the insects in the flowers as well as on the nectar and flower parts, such as calabash, sausage tree, areca palm, kapok tree, banana.

Over 300 species of fruit depend on bats for pollination. These fruits include:

  • mangoes,
  • bananas, and
  • guavas.

The Agave plant and the Saguaro, state cactus of Arizona, also depend upon bats for pollination. The agave is an important plant because it is used to make tequila.

To learn more about bats and bat pollination, visit Bat Conservation International’s website.

Bats As Pollinators: What Plants Do Bats Pollinate

Bats are important pollinators for many plants. However, unlike fuzzy little bees, colorful butterflies and other daytime pollinators, bats show up at night and they don’t get a lot of credit for their hard work. However, these highly effective animals can fly like the wind, and they can carry a tremendous amount of pollen on their face and fur. Are you curious about plants that are pollinated by bats? Read on to learn more about the types of plants bats pollinate.

Facts about Bats as Pollinators

Bats are important pollinators in warm climates – primarily desert and tropical climates such as the Pacific Islands, Southeast Asia and Africa. They are critical pollinators for plants of the American Southwest, including agave plants, Saguaro and organ pipe cactus.

Pollinating is only part of their job, as one bat can eat more than 600 mosquitoes in a single hour. Bats also eat harmful beetles and other crop-decimating pests.

Types of Plants Pollinated by Bats

What plants do bats pollinate? Bats generally pollinate plants that bloom at night. They are attracted to large, white or pale-colored blooms measuring 1 to 3 ½ inches in diameter. Bats like nectar-rich, highly fragrant blooms with a musty, fruity aroma. Flowers are usually tube- or funnel-shaped.

According to the United States Forest Service Rangeland Management Botany Program, more than 300 species of food-producing plants depend on bats for pollination, including:

  • Guavas
  • Bananas
  • Cacao (Cocoa)
  • Mangos
  • Figs
  • Dates
  • Cashews
  • Peaches

Other flowering plants that attract and/or are pollinated by bats include:

  • Night-blooming phlox
  • Evening primrose
  • Fleabane
  • Moonflowers
  • Goldenrod
  • Nicotiana
  • Honeysuckle
  • Four o’clocks
  • Datura
  • Yucca
  • Night-blooming Jessamine
  • Cleome
  • French marigolds

Incredible pollinating animals — other than bees

When you think of pollinators, you probably think of honeybees. It is true—they are the most economically important pollinators and are responsible for most of the fruits and vegetables that we eat. But they are not the only ones. In terms of pollination services, honeybees provide 39%, while non-bee animals provide 38% and other bees provide 23%. So, pollinators other than bees pollinate as much as honeybees — who knew? In the USA alone non-bee pollinators provided pollination services that contributed to $10 billion of crops in 2010, while honeybees contributed to over $19 billion.

Pollination involves moving pollen from the male part of a flower, the stamen, to the female part, the stigma, and subsequent fertilization. When fertilized, the plant often produces a fruit and seeds. Pollinators usually get covered with pollen when gathering pollen or nectar from a flower. When they move to the next flower, the pollen can reach the stigma and cause pollination. There is an incredibly large range of non-bee pollinators that includes flies, butterflies and moths, beetles, ants, birds, bats, and wasps.

Here are some of the other pollinators that shouldn’t be overlooked:

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Flies

Hoverflies (Syrphidae family) are often thought to be the most important pollinators after bees. Most pollinate a variety of flowers without being too picky, but some flowers specifically try to attract certain hover flies by mimicking aphid pheromones or their favorite colors. They can effectively pollinate sweet peppers, strawberries, and other economically important plants.

Don’t be fooled, this isn’t a bee or a wasp, but a hoverfly! Image credits: .

Another group of important pollinating flies are bee flies (Bombylius species). If you look at them quickly you might think that they are bees, but they are only imitators. Although they look like bees, their larvae actually feed on bee larvae. Bee flies have very long proboscises to pollinate flowers that have narrow, deep tubes. Other flies that pollinate are some male Bactrocera fruit flies and even adult mosquitos. They like pale and dull flowers with lots of pollen.

This little fuzzball is called a Bombylius major, a bee fly. Image credits: Rror.

Carrion flies pollinate flowers that have a fetid odour, similar to rotting meat, dung, humus, or blood. These flowers are often also purple or red to seem even more like meat. Some of the carrion flies get tricked into laying their eggs on these flowers; their larvae starve due to lack of carrion.

Wasps

Different from bees, many wasps catch prey to feed their larvae instead of pollen, which is why they have stingers. Wasps need a lot of energy like bees. They are not as important pollinators as bees, because they are not fuzzy and therefore pollen doesn’t stick to them as much. Wasps from Masarinae, a subfamily of Vespidae, are called pollen wasps because they gather pollen to feed their larvae.

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You can see the fig wasps in the cross-section of a fig. Image credits: Prashanthns.

Figs are fruit that depend on tiny fig wasps to pollinate them. Fig flowers lie inside of immature fruit so the wasps need to be small to fit into a tiny hole to lay their eggs and pollinate. Fig wasps pollinate almost 1,000 different species of figs.

Butterflies & moths

Butterflies are not built for pollination, with their slender legs and elevated bodies, but they do transport some pollen as they flit from flower to flower in search of nectar. Butterflies like flowers that contain a lot of nectar. They have good vision and are attracted to flowers that are brightly colored — such as red, orange, and yellow. They like flowers in clusters, with a landing platform.

Yucca moth pollinating a yucca plant. Image credits: Joshua Tree National Park.

Moths also pollinate plants, though ones that flower at night. Some moths are specially adapted to certain plants. Some orchids are dependent on moths such as the hawk moth or Morgan’s sphinx. Yucca plants depend on Yucca moths to pollinate them. The flowers that moths pollinate are similar to those for butterflies except that they are usually a dull color.

Beetles

Beetles were among the first pollinators to visit flowers 200 million years ago, and they are still important! As you can imagine, some, more ancient, plant species are pollinated by them, such as magnolias and spicebush. They often eat petals and other parts of flowers and are known for sometimes defecating in the flowers.

Beetle pollinating flowers. Image credits: Elena Motivans.

The beetles that eat pollen, nectar, or flowers are the most important pollinators. They go for dull, fruity flowers that are open during the day—they can be large solitary flowers or clusters of small flowers.

Birds

The most well-known bird pollinators are, of course, hummingbirds. However, there are also other important bird pollinators, such as honeycreepers in Hawaii and honeyeaters in Australia. Brush-tongued parrots in New Guinea and sunbirds in the tropical old world also pollinate, especially deep flowers. In total, 2,000 bird species feed on nectar and therefore transport pollen to some degree.

A sunbird pollinating a flower in Kenya. Image credits: Steve Garvie.

The most attractive flowers for birds have petals that are curved out of the way, strong supports for perching, bright colors, and lots of nectar that is deep down. When the birds thrust their heads into the flowers to get the nectar, pollen sticks to their heads. Hummingbirds eat a lot of nectar, several times their weight each day, to have enough energy to beat their wings 70 times a second.

These flying mammals are important pollinators of some flowers in the tropics and deserts, more specifically in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. Two examples of bats that feed on nectar are the lesser long-nosed bat (Leptonycteris yerbabuenae) and the Mexican long-tongued bat (Choeronycteris mexicana).

A bat drinking nectar from a cactus flower. Image credits: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters.

Flowers that bats like are open at night, large, pale, fragrant, and contain lots of dilute nectar. Bats not only feed on the nectar, but also on insects in the flower. Though you might think that bats aren’t important pollinators, they are responsible for pollinating plants like mangoes, bananas, guavas, and agave.

Other

There are also some surprising pollinators, like mammals and lizards. Monkeys, lemurs, possums, rodents, and lizards are known to pollinate some plants. The largest pollinator in the world is the black and white ruffed lemur (Varecia variegata), which pollinates the traveler’s palm. The flowers are very tough and the lemurs pull them open and stick their snouts and tongues inside. Pollen sticks to their fur, which is then transported to the next flower. Honey possums (Tarsipes rostratus) have a tail that lets them hang from branches to look for flowers, and a very long tongue to drink nectar. They pollinate banksia and eucalyptus flowers. Some other mammals, like bush babies and sugar gliders also pollinate.

The world’s largest pollinator. Image credits: Charlesjsharp.

Even lizards can pollinate! An example is the Noronha skink (Trachylepis atlantica) from Brazil. It drinks the nectar from the leguminous mulungu tree’s flowers. The skinks climb inside the flower to drink and, in the process, the pollen sticks to their scales and gets deposited when they visit another flower.

It’s true—pollinators are more diverse than just the honeybees. We depend on all of them for the beautiful flowers and tasty fruits and vegetables in the world.

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