They’re creepy and kooky, mysterious and spooky, but we’re not talking about the Addams Family. Bats matter for a multitude of reasons including pollination and insect control. Folklore would have us believe that bats are just blood suckers lurking in the shadows waiting to drain blood from the next unwary passerby. We hang replica decorations at Halloween because of their mysterious nature. But, bats don’t have some shadowy alter ego. Only three species of vampire bats exist, and they don’t “suck” blood. Vampire bats only scratch the surface of the animal and then lick the blood, much like a kitten lapping milk from a bowl. This causes a minor superficial wound on the prey which is mainly livestock. Nevertheless, we don’t have any carnivorous bats in Florida.
We do have thirteen different species of bats native to the Sunshine State. All of them are insectivorous. One species, the Hoary bat, is transient, migrating south like snowbirds, seeking warmer temperatures. Most are permanent residents. There are an additional seven species of bat that the Florida Bat Conservancy calls accidental species. Meaning they are not native but have been recorded at one time or another in the state. So why do bats matter?
Bats play a significant role in the ecosystem. A single bat can eat up to three thousand insects or 70% of its body weight per night. Since all our native bats are insectivorous, imagine the pest control problem without the help of bats! According to a study published in 2011 it is estimated that insect consumption by bats accounts for a savings of nearly $23 million per year in agricultural pest control. Add residential and commercial pest control and the number tops nearly $3 billion. Many crop feeding pests are the primary prey of native Florida bats. Bats also have an appetite for mosquitoes.
All bats are members of the order Chiroptera, which is Greek for “hand-wing” They are mammals, not birds and their bodies are very mouse like. Bat wings, however, are very similar to human hands. The thumb extends to a claw which the bat can use to climb trees. The membrane that makes up the wing is called “patagium” and extends to attach to their body. Bats can move these “fingers” independently effectively allowing them to swim through the air. Bats are what inspired early man to attempt to fly. A bats ability to echolocate its prey is responsible, in part, for modern sonar technology.
What Do Florida Bats Eat?
Almost half of our native bat species like to feed on mosquitoes, with the Southeastern Myotis dining almost exclusively on them. All but Rafinesque’s Big-Eared Bat eat beetles, flies, and moths; these bats diet consists mainly of moths and other soft bodied insects. Several species also eat flying ants and termites. Big brown bats, Seminole bats, Hoary bats and Evening bats include true bugs as a main source of nutrition in their diet. True bugs are bugs of the Hemiptera order that include stink bugs, aphids, assassin bugs, cicadas, bed bugs and planthopper species. Since all these pests are problematic in Florida, aren’t you glad we have bats here to help keep populations under control?
Contrary to popular belief, bats do not pursue humans. These winged mammals, like many animals, tend to shy away from human contact. Bats are very docile critters; they are not even likely to bite should you pluck them from their rest. If a person happens to be “buzzed” by a bat, it is likely because that bat is in pursuit of an insect. Nearly all insectivorous bats feed during flight, though some species have been known to stalk prey on the ground. So, if a bat gets tangled in your hair, be glad it is just chasing after the bug that got there first.
Where do Florida Bats Live?
Bats roost in a variety of locations including inside buildings and under bridges. Most of the Florida species prefer to make roost in the cavities of dead trees. Florida has a lack of caves except for a few in the panhandle, so you won’t find many cave dwelling species here. Some will occupy a bat house if one is available. A few species can be found in Spanish Moss, while the Brazilian free tailed bat also likes to make roost under barrel tile roofs. Other species, like the Evening bat will roost from the brackets on utility poles.
About half of the bats found in Florida are colonial bats, meaning they prefer to live in groups. Few of the species are solitary, like the Tricolored bat. Groups, if they exist at all, never consist of more than a few individuals. However, the Brazilian free-tailed bat can live in colonies ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand. This is Florida’s most abundant species. Should you choose to build a bat house, the Brazilian free tailed will be the most likely to occupy it.
Bats can be found all over the state and depending on where you are, the bat you might encounter will vary. In Northern Florida you won’t spot any Florida Bonneted, Velvety free-tailed or evening bats. The Gray Motis is the least common species in Florida because it is a cave dwelling bat. There are only a few caves in the panhandle area of Florida that can serve as roost sites for this bat. Both the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission classify the Gray Motis as Endangered.
In peninsular Florida species are plentiful and you’ll find nearly all native species, though varieties will dwindle the further south you go. The Florida bonneted bat is exclusive to southern Florida, but is not seen in the Keys. FWC classifies this bat as rare and endangered. From Key Largo to Key West the Velvety free tailed can be spotted. Maybe if you are lucky, you’ll spot one of the southern accidental species while travelling toward Mile Zero.
There are two types of accidental species in the state, three have arrived from northern locations, four have arrived from southern locations. All three northern accidentals are insectivorous. The four southern accidentals have all been recorded south of Miami to Key West. While the northern accidentals are insectivorous, the southern accidentals are not. There are two fruit bat and two flower bat species in this accidental group. They were all spotted south of Miami to Key West. These bats also have echolocation capabilities, but it is not as accurate as insectivorous bats. The frugivorous and nectivorous species rely much more on sight and smell than they do on echolocation for finding their food.
Busting Bat Myths
Another false assumption about bats is that they are blind. It is true that all insectivorous bats use echolocation to help them target insects, but bats are not blind. They have the same senses that humans do: sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. Insectivorous bats can pinpoint a mosquito’s location and pluck it from the air while in flight. That’s a phenomenal feat!
Bats & Rabies
Despite popular opinion, bats are highly unlikely to carry rabies. Two tenths of a percent of the population, or about fifty-five thousand people report possible rabies bites each year and most recieve the PEP treatment before symptoms occur. There are fewer than 3 fatalities each year in the US due to rabies infection from any animals, but bats do account for approximately 1/3 of the cases. This number could be elevated because the CDC recommends that if you wake in a room with a bat in it, you should assume you have been bitten.
Bat Education and Conservation
If you want to see the largest bat colony in the world, plan a trip to Bracken Cave just outside San Antonio, Texas. Nearly 15 million Mexican free tailed bats call this place home. But, bats do need our help. According to the Florida Bat Coservancy, located in Merritt Island, FL “disturbance or destruction of roost sites due to development and vandalism is the greatest threat to the world’s bats.” You can help bats by becoming more educated about them. FBC offers an informative website as well as education programs to fulfil their mission of helping preserve and protect native bat populations in the state.
Building a Bat House
If you don’t mind becoming your friendly neighborhood batman, consider installing a bat house in your yard. This will help your local bat populations, and in turn, reduce your pest populations. Due to urbanization many bats are losing valuable roosting sites. This is why you will often find them in abandoned buildings and under bridges. Humans can help thwart this by building bat houses in their neighborhoods and backyards. Not only will this provide valuable habitat for the bats, but in return you’ll see a significant decrease in pest insect populations. Your vegetable garden and wallet will also benefit from the use of less pesticide as a means of pest control. Consider helping bats and in return they will help you. You can find plans for a three chamber nursery house for bats from the Florida Bat Conservancy here.
Learn more about bats in Florida: https://www.floridabats.org/
How Bats Work: https://animals.howstuffworks.com/mammals/bat1.htm
Taylor, Marianne Bats: An Illustrated Guide to All Species Smithsonian Books, 2018