Celebrate Halloween by Learning About Bats
Bats and Halloween
Bats, specifically the black is one of the symbols of Halloween. To this day, many people are terrified of encountering a bat at night. I often wondered why.
It might be because bats are creatures of the dark. They are nocturnal, active at night, and asleep during the day. So it was hard for people to understand them, and most people fear the unknown.
Then came the discovery of the vampire bats in the 17th century. Myths about blood-sucking bats circulated around Europe in earlier times. When evidence surfaced about their existence, it was reason enough to fear them even more.
But the link between bats and Halloween most likely started well before that. Many cultures believed that on October 31st the spirit of the dead can cross over to the living world. The ancient Celts did, too. Halloween started from their way of dealing with it. As protection from the ghosts, they held celebrations with huge bonfires. They burned offerings of crops and animals on these huge fires, while they dressed up in costumes.
The bonfires attracted mosquitoes, moths and all sorts of insect. The insects, in turn, attracted the nocturnal, hungry bats. If you ever saw a bat flying at night, you know that their flight pattern seems erratic and very fast. It is hard to follow them as they turn left and right with incredible speed, catching their prey.
The people couldn't can't see the insects in the dark, only the bats or the shadows of the bats. These shadows, zooming in an out of the firelight, might have seemed as the spirits of the returning dead.
The bats became associated with Halloween.
Do We Really Need to Fear Bats?
When I was a child, I was taught to fear bats. This fear had nothing to do with Halloween. I grew up in a place where we didn't celebrate Halloween, didn't even know about its existence. Still, everyone I knew considered bats as undesirable, and creatures to be feared.
My grandmother used to warn me that if I ventured outside in the dark, I would encounter a flying mouse. She called bats flying mice. I asked her why would that bother me. Flying mice would get entangled in my hair, scratch my head, or even my eyes out, she said. People of her generation had a potful of imagination.
But I was one of those kids who would question everything. I came to the conclusion that grandma and the other grown-ups in my life were trying to keep me inside at night with scary bat stories. I didn't believe her, I actually wanted to see a bat. I didn't notice one for a long time, but my instincts proved right.
I would rather sit in the dark in the company of bats, than without them. Since I am allergic to mosquito bites, I welcome any creature that feeds on them. And bats eat a lot of mosquitoes.
I've been around bats often since and I learned to appreciate them. I've seen them in caves in Yucatan, in dark rooms of abandoned Mayan pyramids. I've also enjoyed watching flying foxes, the biggest bats, hanging in the trees in the Royal Botanical Gardens in Sydney, Australia. And I learned to recognize them when I see them flying around at dusk in my own backyard, in Arizona.
I learned that bats can't get tangled in your hair. They definitely wouldn't want to, they would be trapped and no creature likes to be trapped. They wouldn't get tangled by accident. Contrary to popular belief, bats are definitely not blind. If someone calls you "blind as a bat", you could answer that it means you have better vision than most people. But if for some reason a bat can't see us, they can identify us with echolocation. They use this method of sending out sound waves to find prey and identify other objects as well. Even you and your hair.
Bats are not flying mice, either. In fact, they are more closely related to us, human than to mice and rats. They belong in a class called Chiroptera, a word originating in ancient Greek, meaning hand-wing. If you ever saw even a representation of a bat, you know that their wings look like our hands. It's like they have webbed hands that help them fly.
Some of the myths are based on facts though. If you are told not to touch a bat with bare hands, it is good advice. Some bats may indeed be rabid, like any other mammal. But most of them are not. Still, it's not a good idea to touch them. If they are sick, they may get scared and bite. But this is common sense, and good advice when encountering any wild animal.
Then, of course, there is the myth of "bats will suck your blood". Yes, vampire bats do exist, and they do drink blood. But they are tiny, smaller than you recall phone, and they would not approach humans. They feed on barn animals, and they lap up so little blood that the animals don't even wake up or feel anything. It's like us being bitten by mosquitoes. Mosquitoes are the ones that suck our blood and most species of bats defend us from them.
Bats Are Our Friends
Bats are in fact some of the most beneficial creatures, for humans and natural ecosystems. There are more than 1200 species of bats, and they are all valuable in one way or another.
Many species feed on insects. Yes, they also eat lots of mosquitoes, the creatures that drink our blood. Aside from the benefit of keeping mosquitoes from biting us, they are valuable for agriculture, too. They control the pest population that would eat crops otherwise. In some areas, bats can reduce the need for pesticides.
Some species are pollinators. How else would plants that blooming the night survive? Over 500 species of plants rely on bats to pollinate their flowers. These are all plants that bloom at night. Some of them are species of mangoes, agave, banana and even cocoa. We should thank the bats for our Halloween chocolate.
Some bats disperse seeds, critical for some plants in the tropics. Like birds, bats carry seeds of some fruit as they eat and digest them. Then, they excrete the seeds farther away from the original tree. These seeds, already fertilized, germinate and grow into a new tree. In fact, by doing this, bats can help regrowth forests.
Even bat guano, their feces, is beneficial as one of the best natural fertilizers. Gardeners know about it as the best all-natural soil enricher and fertilizer. It is fast-acting and virtually odorless. It enriches the soil and improves its texture and drainage, and it is great as fungicide and compost activator.
Bats Need Our Help
Bats offer us important services, but they don't get the same in return. Our activities cause their populations to decline. Many bat species are vulnerable, some even critically endangered.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists 26 bat species as critically endangered, in the brink extinction. Fifty-one other species are endangered and as many as 954 are vulnerable.
What causes this problem?
Like with most endangered species, the main culprit is their loss of habitat. The forests many bats are using to roost are disappearing. This is mostly true for tropical rainforests. Bats roosting in caves or in abandoned mines can't hibernate in peace. Thoughtless tourists and guano mining wake them up and drive them out. Waking them up from hibernation forces them to use up their fat supply that helps them survive.
In some parts of the world, bats are still killed. It might be because of fear and misconceptions or hunted for food or for use in mythic folk medicine.
Diseases kill huge numbers of bats. Caused by a fungus that attacks hibernating bats, the White-nose Syndrome killed more than 5.7 million bats in North America.
To add to it all, bats reproduce at a low rate. In most species, females give birth to only one pup a year. Because of this, recovery from all these losses is extremely slow.
How Can We Help?
One of the best ways to help is by educating others about bats. When people don't fear them, they won't hurt them. If people understand bats, they are more careful around them.
When entering a cave or abandoned building where hibernating bats might be present, be very quiet, and don't use a bright flashlight. If you want to see the hibernating bats, put a red filter on your flashlight and you can point it at them. You can put red tape on the flashlight or tape a piece of red paper on it if you don't have a filter.
Avoid the use of insecticides in your garden. They harm bats, but bees as well, so you have more than one reason to stop using them. Instead, try to attract bats to your gardens, and they will take care of the insects that bother you.
To attract bats, learn about the ones in your region and understand their feeding habits. Then try to ensure that you have a good supply of food for them in your garden. For insect-eating bats make sure you don't use insecticides. For fruit-eating or pollinator bats keep plants that they like in your garden. You can also buy or build a bat house. There is a good chance that they will use it if your neighborhood is safe for them and they have a steady supply of food.
Find a bat conservation group in your area and get involved. They may need funding or volunteers to help.
Bat Watch is one of the easiest ways to help when they need volunteers. I signed up with my daughter last year, since she is planning to be a wildlife conservationist. All it took from us was a few minutes now and then on the computer, watching bat videos. For that particular project, we helped gather data recorded on bat watch cameras. Scientists were able to use it to learn about bats' habits.