If you’re terrified by bats or consider them little more than winged mice, let me assure you that their benefits far outweigh any perceived negative impact they have. You really do want these amazing animals around.
They eat all sorts of things—frogs, small mammals, fish, and even nectar from flowers—but the majority of bats in a typical garden are insect eaters. They consume mosquitoes (several hundred per night for the common little brown bat), as well as moths and beetles that do major damage in the garden. Here’s how to attract these voracious insect eaters:
Eliminate pesticides to ensure healthy insect populations for bats. You can’t expect bats to eliminate all insects, but they certainly reduce and control pest populations. This is good for both natural ecosystems and your garden.
Plant a habitat for bats. With the exception of certain nectar-eating species in the Desert Southwest, you can’t plant a “bat garden” to attract bats in the same way that you can for birds or butterflies. Instead, include mature trees for roosting and a healthy native plant community that supports insects.
Install a bat box to mimic natural roosting sites. The key to a successful bat box is proper construction and mounting. Build bat boxes from wood, and stain them brown or gray to help retain heat.
In most areas, bat boxes should face south to maximize sun exposure. Make them at least 20 inches across by 24 inches tall. Smaller boxes likely won’t be used. The box can have a single chamber or several made with slats of wood inside the box, with less than 1 inch between chambers.
Mount bat boxes on the side of a building or on a pole at least 12 feet off the ground. This provides protection from predators such as snakes and raccoons.
Provide water. Bats prefer a body of water a bit larger than an average birdbath so they can swoop over and grab a sip of water while flying. Bats also use garden ponds as a water source. To prevent bats from drowning, provide “ladders” to help them get out of the water, such as rocks dipping into the water and some branches and plants extending into the water.
The Truth about Bats
There are many myths associated with bats. Here are the facts:
True: Bats are common all over the world.
With over 1,100 species worldwide, bats account for a quarter of all mammal species on the planet. There are 47 species in the United States, 16 of which are also found in Canada.
False: Bats are rodents.
Bats are not rodents, but belong to their own group of mammals called Chiroptera. Bats are more closely related to primates than to mice and other rodents.
False: Bats are related to birds.
Bats are not related to birds. They have fur rather than feathers and nurse their young, which are born live.
False: Bats can’t see.
Bats are not blind. Insect-eating bats use echolocation (using the echoes of high-pitched sounds to find prey) to hunt. That’s why they don’t need large eyes like many other nocturnal creatures.
True: Vampire bats drink blood.
There are three species of vampire bats that primarily feed on the blood of birds and mammals. They live in Latin America.
False: Bats are likely to spread rabies to humans.
Bats, like all mammals, are susceptible to rabies but pose little threat of infecting people.
False: Bats get caught in people’s hair.
This myth may stem from the fact that bats sometimes swoop close to people’s heads when chasing insects, but they won’t get stuck in your hair.
David Mizejewski is the author of Attracting Birds, Butterflies, and Other Backyard Wildlife (Creative Homeowner, 2004), the host of Animal Planet’s “Backyard Habitat,” and a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation.