Learning about bats as pollinators
As part of today's creature feature, Friends University student Sarah Yokley interviewed Zack Cordes from Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks, And Tourism (KDWPT) to learn more about bats.
SY: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your interest in bats?
ZC: I am a non-game biologist with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks, And Tourism. My first experience working with bats was assisting with hibernacula cave surveys in the Red Hills. Since then, I have continued to assist with data collection at several caves, set ultrasonic microphones which can detect bat echolocation, and mist net for bats while collecting guano and tissue samples.
SY: Why are pollinators in general important?
ZC: Not only are pollinators good for the environment, but almost 80% of crops grown across the world are pollinated by animals. Over 150 food crops in the U.S alone benefit from pollinators. Even those that can be wind pollinated, such as tomatoes, increase yield when assisted by pollinators.
SY: Why are bats as pollinators important? What makes them different?
ZC: Bats assist in pollinating or exclusively pollinate several resources used by people. For example, avocados, bananas, coconuts, and agave are all pollinated by bats. Not only are bats a necessary part of a larger functioning system, they have several commercial benefits to us. One difference is they are nocturnal. It is easy to think of pollinators such as bees, butterflies, and birds because that is what we see, but bats and moths work the night shift.
SY: Why should we care about bats as pollinators in other areas of the country, like the desert?
ZC: All 15 species of Kansas bats are insectivorous. The two pollinating bat species found in our deserts are the only pollinator bat species found in the U.S. The Lesser Long-nosed bat pollinates the Saguaro Cactus, an iconic species that many of us picture when we think of the desert. This cactus is also a keystone species endemic to the Sonoran Desert, providing food, habitat, shade, and water to animals in the region.
SY: Do all bats migrate to pollinate certain plants like the Mexican long-nosed bat does?
ZC: In the United States yes. The Lesser Long-nosed Bat, the other pollinator species found in the U.S., migrates to pollinate as well. This migration is driven by food availability. As you get into tropical regions with consistent flower production there may not be the need.
SY: What are some risks that bats are facing?
ZC: Bats face a number of issues. One concern is a disease, White-nose Syndrome (WNS), which has killed nearly 7 million bats in the United States and Canada. The disease is caused by a non-native fungus, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, which affects hibernating bats. Since its discovery in the U.S. in 2006, WNS has been confirmed in 13 species, sometimes resulting the death of 90 to 100% of the bats at infected hibernacula. Persecution of bats due fear and misunderstanding is also a concern. Many instances have been documented across the world, including Kansas, of bat colonies being purposely destroyed by people. More recently, misinformation surrounding Covid-19 has resulted in the culling of bats. Other risks include habitat loss due to development, agriculture conversion, and climate change.
SY: What would happen if we lost bats as pollinators?
ZC: Studies have shown bat pollination increases the quality and yield of some cash crops. Loss of bats would reduce income for farmers in those regions. Aside from fruit, products such as wood, fiber, and oils are used from plants pollinated by bats. These products are shipped around the world. Socioeconomic benefits from bats are just part of what they provide. Pollination and seed dispersal promote biodiversity, genetic diversity, and support ecosystem health.
SY: If it came to this, could another organism take the place of bats as pollinators?
ZC: No, bats are well adapted to their environment. Some exclusion studies have shown yield reduction in the absence of bats. Even though other pollinators were able to access the flowing plants, other pollinators were not as efficient as bats. This may not be the case with every plant, but it has been shown in some.
SY: If the preferred plants of bats were to go extinct, could they adapt to pollinating new plants?
ZC: This is most likely dependent on the degree to which bats rely on those particular plants. Generalists may be able to survive, but specialists may struggle in a quickly changing environment.
SY: What can we do to help bats?
ZC: The first thing someone can do is learn about them. Many myths surround bats and cause irrational fears. Be a steward for bats and share what you have learned with others. They provide many benefits. Learn how to safely remove and exclude bats from your home. If you are interested in bat houses, learn how to correctly place and paint them to encourage use. Reduce pesticides and promote water quality to help minimize impacts to their water and foraging areas.
SY: What can we do to help the plants that bats pollinate?
ZC: This might be a tough one in Kansas and since we lack pollinating bats, but you can still help other pollinators by reducing pesticide and herbicides, increasing plant diversity in your yard rather than encouraging monocultures, planting native wildflower gardens, and providing bee nests.
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