Bats can be beneficial to backyard gardens
Published 12:48 pm Monday, February 20, 2023
BY SUSAN JONAS
Garden Club of Danville
In recent years there has been a lot of talk about gardening for birds, bees and butterflies.
Email newsletter signup
Many of us have begun changing our concept of what a garden is and could be. There is more focus now on native plants, avoiding chemicals and letting parts of our gardens go a bit wild.
How about taking this wildlife gardening to the next level with a bat-friendly garden?
Michaela Rogers, from the Kentucky Wild Program at the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, spoke at the Garden Club of Danville’s February meeting. Kentucky Wild supports vulnerable wildlife facing threats in our state. On the website, fw.ky.gov/kywild, you can find information about membership in Kentucky Wild and even sign up to participate in some of the studies of endangered wildlife.
Rogers explained that feelings about bats have often been negative because they are mysterious and nocturnal. They’re thought of as spooky and scary. Think Halloween and horror movies.
Myths abound about bats, that they’re blind, they’re flying rats that drink blood, they spread rabies, or they’ll fly into your hair and get tangled.
First, bats are far from blind. Yes, they use echolocation to navigate the dark, but they see just fine, too. They are not related at all to rats. In fact, they’re more closely related to primates than they are to rodents.
While there are bats that live on cattle blood, like mosquitoes, none of those live in the United States. All 14 documented species of bats in Kentucky, plus migrants, eat only insects.
According to Rogers, fear of rabies is mostly unfounded, as bats are far less likely to have rabies than many other common small animals. In any case, you shouldn’t handle any wild animal without extreme caution. It’s safer to stay away completely.
As for bats in your hair, scratch that fear. Like most wild animals, they avoid humans when possible. Admittedly, a bat falling down the chimney at night and flying frantically around the room can be unnerving. They’re not trying to nest in your hair though. The poor bat is looking for a way out. Open a window and turn the lights off.
Because they are seldom seen, we forget that bats are an important part of the ecosystem.
They help by eating great quantities of insects, particularly moths and mosquitoes. A single bat can eat up to 1,000 insects in an evening.
Their natural habitats are in decline, but we can easily help bats by taking a few simple steps. If you already garden for pollinators and birds you’re on the right path.
Start by including plants that open their flowers late in the day or keep their flowers open all night. These plants attract night-flying insects that are the bats’ food.
Nighttime pollinators are more attracted to fragrant plants, especially flowers that are either white or very light colors. Good choices include the large bowl-like flowers of tulip poplars, magnolias, and white dogwood. Others are nicotiana (tobacco plant), phlox, white indigo (Baptisia), evening primrose, goldenrod, and moonflower.
Ideally, the plants you choose should be native to Kentucky because those will best lure the bats’ target insects. Our native trees attract millions of caterpillars, which in turn become the moths that are food for bats.
Avoid using pesticides. These kill the bats’ food source, and there’s a risk of poisoning the bats themselves, not to mention other creatures.
Dark gardens attract more night creatures. Use outdoor lights that are fully shielded to shine mostly downward and minimize the amount of blue light. Yellow light is the preferred choice.
Consider leaving parts of your property unmown to encourage insect reproduction. If this wild area includes dead logs, rock piles, fallen leaves, and a bit of bare ground, it will be even more attractive to insects. A brush pile helps, too. Not so long ago, the goal was a garden free of bugs. Today we know better.
If you consider installing a bat house, do some research first. Bats are picky about where they’ll roost, and guidelines are specific. Instead, if it’s safe to do so, leave dead trees and limbs standing to provide potential roosting sites for bats. Snags, as standing dead trees are called, are also helpful to woodpeckers and other birds that nest in cavities and consume insects that bore into dead wood.
As natural habitats become increasingly scarce, our gardens are playing a more important role in protecting bats. Like the presence of other wildlife, bats are a sign of a green and healthy environment.
Creating a garden that’s good for bats will also be good for people. If you’re lucky, you will be able to sit outside at dusk and thrill to the sight of bats swooping through the skies above you.