Bats are often featured at Halloween when people associate bats with vampires. Although there are a handful of species of bats that drink blood, these are mostly in South America, and the vast majority of bat species around the world eat insects and fruit! Far less scary.
All of the bats in the UK eat insects (some eat spiders too), which is why many gardeners and farmers are really keen to encourage bats to help keep pesky flies and other bugs at bay. The most common UK bat, the Common Pipistrelle can eat up to 2000 mosquitoes a night! If you are out just after dusk and see a small bat swooping around your head, it is most likely to be this species. They are not as sensitive to lighting as other species, and they duck and dive to take insects that may be flying near you that have been attracted to your warmth.
Another fantastic fact about bats is that they pollinate some of our most loved foods – chocolate, avocado, banana, mango, coconut and tequila (agave plant!). So without them, many of our favourite foods would disappear.
UK bats rely on a whole range of different habitats, but the most critical are hedgerows, woodland edge and insect rich habitats. Some bats prefer to be within dense woodland such as the rare and elusive Bechsteins’ and Barbastelle bats, others such as the lesser and greater horseshoe bat prefer taking insects from species rich meadows or staying close to herds of cattle so they can eat their favourite food, the dung beetle! Each bat has adapted specific features to help it feed effectively based on its habitat. Most bats feed by ‘hawking’ which means catching prey and eating while flying. The Daubentons bat, often called the water bat, has evolved large feet with stiff hairs, so when it flies over a pond or lake it can effectively trawl the insects sitting on the surface of the water.
Due to bats using so many different habitats (hedgerows, farmland, woodland, meadows, ponds and rivers, orchards), they are often referred to as bio-indicators, giving us a clue as to the health of the ecosystem around us. A diverse bat population indicates the habitats around us are functioning well and able to support a healthy ecosystem.
If you want to help support bats, the best thing you can do is put up a bat box such as the ones available from Wildlife World and grow plants that are night scented to encourage moths that the bats can then eat! Other ways to help increase the insect life in your garden include the following:
- Create a wildlife pond
- Plant a wildflower meadow
- Don’t use pesticides
- Make a mini-beast pile, logs, sticks, leaves and rocks for bugs to overwinter.
- Grow bat seeds and put up a bat box
One of the things that makes bats a really fascinating animal to study in the wild is their ability to navigate by echolocation. Bats are not blind, but their sense of hearing is far superior to their vision, so they are more suited to hunting at night. To find their prey, as they fly through the air at great speeds, they let out a loud call that is at a frequency higher than the human ear can naturally hear. The bat then listens for the echo to bounce off that object, to determine its surroundings. Bats are so brilliant at this that they can determine how far away the insect is that they are hunting and which direction it is travelling in! Join a bat walk with organisations such as the Wildlife Trust, that lead walks with bat detectors that bring the frequency of the bat calls down to a range where we can hear it. On one of these walks, you will often hear lots of different bat species and learn how to identify them based on the frequency. A glimpse into this aerial world is something all children and adults should experience.
In the United Kingdom there are 18 species of bat, 17 of which breed here. Bats are our only flying mammal and have been around for millions of years! The earliest bat fossil dates back 52 million years, but sadly now many of our bats are very endangered, which is why ALL UK bats are protected by both domestic and international law. (If you think you have bats roosting, please call Bat Conservation Trust on 0345 1300 228 for advice).