Media & Education
BATS Magazine

Volume 38, Issue 2, 2019

The Power of the Nighttime Pollinator

Bats are indispensable for the reproduction of multiple flowers and fruits

By Aran Richardson


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Borderlands Restoration collects agave seed in the Chiricahua
and Peloncillo Mountains of Southeast Arizona and
Southwest New Mexico.

Pollination is so incredibly vital for plants (including food crops) that it has a dedicated “Pollinator Week” (June 17–23). This is a way to recognize the role of pollinators (not just bats) in the ecosystem who are responsible for the survival of our flowers and crops. Bats play an important role in pollination. They effectively run the “night shift” of pollination, as the bees and other insects take the day shift. Bats are indispensable for the reproduction of multiple flowers and fruits, including durian, bananas and the magical tequila-producing agave.

So how do bats actually pollinate flowers and encourage fruit production? It’s amazingly simple yet illustrates the wonder of nature, where animals and plants work together in such harmony.

Let’s go back to high school biology to look at the inner parts of a flower and the process of pollination:

• Flowers and plants have several parts.

• These include male parts called stamens that create powdery pollen.

• The female part, called the pistil, has a sticky part known as the stigma.

• Pollination occurs when pollen is moved from a stamen to the stigma.

• Some plants self-pollinate or rely on the wind.

• Many plants are pollinated by creatures that drink nectar from the plant and then transfer pollen from plant to plant (this is called cross-pollination).

When bats land or hover over a flower to consume nectar (or an insect sitting on the flower), some of the plant’s pollen ends up on the bat’s fur. It might stick to their face, torso or legs. The bats then travel to another flower where some of the stuck pollen is distributed and pollination occurs. It’s the same mechanics as a bumblebee moving from plant to plant with pollen covering its legs. Species of bats that eat seeds also encourage plant growth through seed dispersal in their guano, which further illustrates their mutualistic role with plants.

Benefits of Study

Part of our mission at Bat Conservation International is to study bats in their natural habitats and use this information to make impactful conservation decisions.

Consider the Island flying fox. It’s a big bat (they aren’t really foxes) that grows to over a 3-foot wingspan. They feed on the nectar of the durian tree, which produces the incredibly pungent durian fruit that’s a central part of many Asian cuisines. Due to their size, the bats were thought to damage the plants, but they actually are important pollinators that are vital to the durian’s growth.

BCI’s Chief Scientist Winifred Frick deeply understands the role bats play in pollination. She’s frequently quoted in the news and routinely publishes research from the field about the health of bat colonies, disease prevention and pollination. For example, she has extensively studied the bat-plant interactions and pollination of the cardon cactus on the Baja peninsula in northwestern Mexico. The cardon cactus is pollinated by the lesser long-nosed bat, a nectar-eating specialist and the pallid bat, a species most famous for feasting on scorpions. Through study, she found a surprising result: “The lesser long-nosed bat is highly specialized for nectar-feeding and was thought to be the primary pollinator of the cardon cactus. But when we measured their effectiveness, we found that the pallid bat actually delivers about 13 times as much pollen per visit.” Her quote reflects the surprising findings that can come from research and the need to have people in the field who can uncover exactly how bats are doing in their environments.

It’s vitally important for organizations such as BCI to study these types of interactions and then clearly explain individual species’ beneficial roles in pollination. Understanding the mechanics of pollination allows us to link together bat populations and certain plants so we can focus efforts on protecting and restoring plant habitat, as well as managing bat roosts throughout the world.

5 Fast Facts About Bat Pollinators

Bats are amazing creatures. Here are five facts about pollination:

  1. The world’s strongest-smelling fruit, the durian, would not exist without flying foxes (which are actually fruit bats).
  2. Bats can travel much further distances than insects, allowing them to pollinate plants over a wider range.
  3. Koala bears and smoothie drinkers rely on bats. Both eucalyptus trees and bananas are pollinated by bats.
  4. The iconic saguaro cactus is mainly pollinated by bats.
  5. Other plants are actually acoustically engineered for bats’ echolocation skills. A plant in Cuba has leaves that function as satellite dishes to help attract pollinating bats.

 

All articles in this issue:

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