Bats As Pollinators: What Plants Do Bats Pollinate


By: Mary H. Dyer, Credentialed Garden Writer

Bats are important pollinators for many plants. However, unlike fuzzy little bees, colorful butterflies and other daytime pollinators, bats show up at night and they don’t get a lot of credit for their hard work. However, these highly effective animals can fly like the wind, and they can carry a tremendous amount of pollen on their face and fur. Are you curious about plants that are pollinated by bats? Read on to learn more about the types of plants bats pollinate.

Facts about Bats as Pollinators

Bats are important pollinators in warm climates – primarily desert and tropical climates such as the Pacific Islands, Southeast Asia and Africa. They are critical pollinators for plants of the American Southwest, including agave plants, Saguaro and organ pipe cactus.

Pollinating is only part of their job, as one bat can eat more than 600 mosquitoes in a single hour. Bats also eat harmful beetles and other crop-decimating pests.

Types of Plants Pollinated by Bats

What plants do bats pollinate? Bats generally pollinate plants that bloom at night. They are attracted to large, white or pale-colored blooms measuring 1 to 3 ½ inches (2.5 to 8.8 cm.) in diameter. Bats like nectar-rich, highly fragrant blooms with a musty, fruity aroma. Flowers are usually tube- or funnel-shaped.

According to the United States Forest Service Rangeland Management Botany Program, more than 300 species of food-producing plants depend on bats for pollination, including:

  • Guavas
  • Bananas
  • Cacao (Cocoa)
  • Mangos
  • Figs
  • Dates
  • Cashews
  • Peaches

Other flowering plants that attract and/or are pollinated by bats include:

  • Night-blooming phlox
  • Evening primrose
  • Fleabane
  • Moonflowers
  • Goldenrod
  • Nicotiana
  • Honeysuckle
  • Four o’clocks
  • Datura
  • Yucca
  • Night-blooming Jessamine
  • Cleome
  • French marigolds

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Bat Pollinated Flowers

Among the most valuable animals that pollinate flowers are bats. Approximately one-third of various bat species—e.g., fruit bats, flying foxes and leaf-nosed bats—frequent flower patches at night, dine on pollen and drink the sweet nectar. Bats fly across long distances, sometimes to feast on a specific plant. Transporting pollen between flowers in different locales, these bats facilitate cross pollination.


2. Flowers produce a musty, rotten odor to attract bats

While some of the flowers that attract bats can be quite beautiful, you probably wouldn’t want to receive a bouquet of them. To attract these flying mammals flowering plants have evolved a musty or rotten perfume. The smell is created by sulphur-containing compounds, which are uncommon in most floral aromas but have been found in the flowers of many plant species that specialize in bat pollination.

As well as their keen sense of smell, bats also use sight to find nectar-producing flowers. Bat flowers are often white or light-colored in an attempt to stand out against foliage or the night sky, but they also can range from brown and green to pink, fuchsia and yellow. Even though they only open at night, bat flowers are often dull in color, which scientists believe may function more as a camouflage from other visitors than as a visual cue to bats.


Vulnerability of bat‐plant pollination interactions due to environmental change

CONACYT ‐ Centro Interdisciplinario de Investigación para el Desarrollo Integral Regional Unidad Durango (CIIDIR), Instituto Politécnico Nacional, Durango, México

Centro Interdisciplinario de Investigación para el Desarrollo Integral Regional Unidad Durango (CIIDIR), Instituto Politécnico Nacional, Durango, México

Comisión Nacional para el Conocimiento y Uso de la Biodiversidad (CONABIO), CDMX, México

CONACYT ‐ Centro Interdisciplinario de Investigación para el Desarrollo Integral Regional Unidad Durango (CIIDIR), Instituto Politécnico Nacional, Durango, México

Environmental Change Institute, School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK

Biodiversity Dynamics, Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Leiden, The Netherlands

CONACYT ‐ Centro Interdisciplinario de Investigación para el Desarrollo Integral Regional Unidad Durango (CIIDIR), Instituto Politécnico Nacional, Durango, México

Centro Interdisciplinario de Investigación para el Desarrollo Integral Regional Unidad Durango (CIIDIR), Instituto Politécnico Nacional, Durango, México

Comisión Nacional para el Conocimiento y Uso de la Biodiversidad (CONABIO), CDMX, México

CONACYT ‐ Centro Interdisciplinario de Investigación para el Desarrollo Integral Regional Unidad Durango (CIIDIR), Instituto Politécnico Nacional, Durango, México

Environmental Change Institute, School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK

Biodiversity Dynamics, Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Leiden, The Netherlands

This article has been accepted for publication and undergone full peer review but has not been through the copyediting, typesetting, pagination and proofreading process, which may lead to differences between this version and the Version of Record. Please cite this article as doi:10.1111/gcb.15611

Abstract

Plant‐pollinator interactions are highly relevant to society as many crops important for humans are animal pollinated. However, changes in climate and land use may put such interacting patterns at risk by disrupting the occurrences between pollinators and the plants they pollinate. Here, we analyse how the co‐occurrence patterns between bat pollinators and 126 plant species they pollinate may be disrupted given changes in climate and land use, and we forecast relevant changes of the current bat‐plant co‐occurrence distribution patterns for the near future.

We predict under RCP8.5 21% of the territory will experience a loss of bat species richness, plants with C3 metabolism are predicted to reduce their area of distribution by 6.5%, CAM species are predicted to increase their potential area of distribution up to 1% and phanerophytes are predicted to have a 14% reduction in their distribution. The potential bat‐plant interactions are predicted to decrease from an average of 47.1 co‐occurring bat‐plant pairs in the present to 34.1 in the pessimistic scenario. The overall changes in suitable environmental conditions for bats and the plant species they pollinate may disrupt the current bat‐plant co‐occurrence network and will likely putt at risk the pollination services bat species provide.

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gcb15611-sup-0002-TableS1-S2.docxWord document, 21.3 KB Table S1‐S2
gcb15611-sup-0003-Data.xlsxapplication/excel, 41.4 KB Supplementary Material

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Pollinator Garden

A showcase of natural plant partnerships.

Nearly 90% of flowering plants rely on approximately 200,000 species of animal pollinators for fertilization. From butterflies and bees to flies and beetles, most pollinators are insects. But birds, bats, and small mammals also pollinate plants.

Pollination is vital for a strong ecosystem. Pollination has evolved over millions of years and benefits both flowering plants and pollinators. One in three bites of food that’s eaten depends on pollinators! Pollination by honeybees and other species adds $24 billion in value to the agricultural crops in the United States each year.

The Pollinator Garden along the east side of the National Museum of Natural History highlights the interdependency between plants and pollinators. The plants, grasses and trees in the garden are selected to provide nourishment and shelter to pollinator insects. Visitors to the garden can join Smithsonian Gardens on a pollination investigation to explore the who, what, when, where, why, and how of pollination.

Garden History

The Pollinator Garden originally opened in 1995 as the Butterfly Habitat Garden with funds from the Smithsonian Women’s Committee, a group dedicated to supporting education, outreach, conservation, and research projects within the Smithsonian through its fundraising activities.

In 2000, The Garden Club of America designated the Butterfly Habitat Garden as one of its Founders’ Fund Projects, enabling the Smithsonian to expand the garden by tripling its size. The gift also provided for the installation of walks, an irrigation system, and an amphitheater seating area. The GCA’s goal is to promote environmental restoration, improvement, and protection through education and conservation and civic engagement in the field.

The Butterfly Habitat Garden was re-dedicated as the Pollinator Garden in June 2016. This transition showcases a wider diversity of pollinators and emphasizes their relationships to beneficial native plants. The garden features a wide variety of primarily native plants for year-round interest and to attract hummingbirds, butterflies, bees, and more.

Set in the Pollinator Garden is Pollination Investigation, an exhibit that allows visitors to discover the who, what, when, where, why, and how of pollination with vibrant educational panels. Pollination Investigation is a joint project of Smithsonian Gardens and the National Museum of Natural History. For more pollinator exploration, visitors can head to the Butterfly Pavilion located inside the National Museum of Natural History.

Pollination Investigation

Nearly 90% of flowering plants rely on about 200,000 species of animal pollinators for fertilization. From butterflies and bees to flies and beetles, most pollinators are insects. But birds, bats, and small mammals also pollinate plants.

Do you know that flowering plants are more than just pretty?

We eat their fruits, grains, and vegetables, and use their wood to build everything from boats to furniture to homes. Medicines come from their leaves, seeds, bark, and flowers. They filter water and buffer coastlines from storms. Their leaves release much of the oxygen we breathe.

Who pollinates?

Plants and pollinators evolved side by side over millions of years. Natural selection has resulted in physical adaptations in both plants and pollinators. Plants have developed many complex ways of attracting pollinators. Similarly, pollinators have evolved with specialized physical traits and behaviors that enhance their pollination efforts. Each participant, plant and pollinator, usually gains a benefit from pollination.

Most plants need help from wind, water, and a diverse group of animals called pollinators to fertilize their flowers and reproduce. Pollinators have distinct preferences for the flowers they visit.

Do you know bees and flowers have secrets?

Bees and a few other pollinators can see the ultraviolet (UV) part of the light spectrum. Flowers like Black-Eyed Susans that look uniformly yellow to humans actually have nectar guides that help pollinators quickly locate the center of each flower.

What is pollination?

Pollination is an essential part of plant reproduction. Pollen from a flower’s anthers (the male part of the plant) rubs or drops onto a pollinator. The pollinators then take this pollen to the next flower, where the pollen sticks to the stigma (the female part). The fertilized flower later yields fruit and seeds.

Do you know why some bees buzz?

Some plants like tomatoes and blueberries release their pollen through two tiny spores in each anther. Bees bite the anthers, hold tight, and buzz to shake the pollen out of the flowers. Bumblebees are living tuning forks, using a middle C tone to propel thousands of pollen grains from a flower in under a second.

When does pollination happen?

Successful pollination requires year-around efforts. Plants have evolved with differing flowering times that decrease competition among pollinators. Continuous blooms throughout the growing season provide pollinators with a constant food supply.

Spring: Pollinators need early blooming plants to provide food after hibernation or northern migrations. Bulbs, spring ephemerals and spring blooming fruit trees are visited during this time.

Summer: Our gardens achieve their peak bloom when many pollinators reach peak populations. The long days of summer allow pollinators the maximum time to forage for nectar.

Fall: Late blooming plants provide many pollinators with needed fuel before hibernation or for the southern migrations of pollinators like monarchs and hummingbirds.

Winter: Even when there appears to be no activity, pollinators are in the garden. Leave decaying plants alone—they may be sheltering pollinating insects as they overwinter.

Do you know some butterflies travel thousands of miles?

At the beginning of each spring, monarch butterflies migrate north from Mexico, following the growth of milkweed. They travel up to 30 miles a day, returning to Mexico in the fall.

Where do pollinators live?

Pollinator habitat depends on the pollinator and their life cycle stage. For example, bees can use leaves, mud, sand, plant resins and even abandoned snail shells for their nests, while many butterfly larvae live and feed only on one specific plant. Pollinators also need foraging habitat with diverse nectar-providing plant species.

Human activities, such as farming, housing development, and road construction, can fragment a pollinator’s habitat, disconnecting where the pollinator lives from where it forages for food. Pollinator habitats need to be within easy range of food and clean, shallow water.

Do you know how bees find a flower patch?

Honey bees communicate through a waggle dance in which scout bees return to the nest and dance to inform other bees about the distance and direction of a newly discovered flower patch.

How can you help pollinators?

Pollinator populations are at risk. Decades of stressors including the loss, degradation, and fragmentation of pollinator habitats the improper use of pesticides and herbicides and diseases, predation, and parasites have all hurt pollinators. Inspired by the Smithsonian Pollinator Garden?

You can help pollination by creating a pollinator-friendly habitat without sacrificing aesthetics. Add diversity to your landscape with a beautiful tapestry of native plants that have evolved with local pollinators and thrive under the conditions in your region. Reach out to your local extension office to research the best plants.

Do you know the importance of pollinator health has been noticed?

On June 20, 2014 President Barack Obama issued a memorandum to create a federal strategy to promote the health of honey bees and other pollinators.

Pollinator Garden Panels

  • Pollination Investigation
  • How can you help pollinators?
  • What is pollination?
  • When does pollination happen?
  • Why is pollination important?
  • Who pollinates?
  • Pollinator Profile: Bees
  • Pollinator Profile: Beetles
  • Pollinator Profile: Butterflies
  • Pollinator Profile: Flies
  • Pollinator Profile: Hummingbirds
  • Pollinator Profile: Moths
  • Pollinator Profile: Wind

Habitat Exhibit

Bug B&B

Bugs are everywhere, and they need places to live, just like us.

The Why, What, When, Where, Who, How of Pollination


5. One species of nectar-feeding bat has the longest mammal tongue in the world

Could you imagine having a tongue that is 9 feet long? That is what it is like for the rare Anoura fistulata, a nectar-feeding bat from South America, which has the longest tongue (proportionally) of all mammals. A. fistulata is only the size of a mouse, but its tongue is around 8.5 centimeters long, making it up to 150% of its body length! With such a long tongue it couldn’t possibly keep all of it in its mouth. Instead, A. fistulata keeps the tongue in its chest, in a cavity between the heart and sternum.


BEE GARDEN DESIGN TIPS

Photo by: FooTToo / Shutterstock.

Beyond planting colorful flowers, there are other things you can do to keep bees abuzz in your garden. Here are tips for creating the ultimate pollinator paradise:

Provide a comfortable home. Not all bees colonize in hives like the super-social honeybee. Bumblebees nest in holes in the ground and need bare areas of unmulched soil where they can dig their underground tunnels. Certain species of solitary bees make their homes in aboveground tunnels or cavities in hollow-stemmed plants and dead wood.

You can purchase a “bee hotel” for these hole-nesting bees—a birdhouse-like structure consisting of hollow reeds or cardboard tubes—or make your own with these steps from Michigan State University Extension. (Here's a fun bee hotel coloring page for budding young gardeners to enjoy.)

Make sure they have access to water. Create a small bee watering station by placing a shallow, wide dish in the garden filled with clean water and a few stones the bees can stand on. A birdbath with a few smooth rocks in it will also do the trick. Another option is to buy a gravity-fed water dispenser designed especially for bees.

Plant a bee lawn that includes low-growing flowering plants as well as turf grass. Dutch white clover (Trifolium repens), creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum), and native violas (Viola spp.) are examples of plants that benefit pollinators and will flower in a mowed lawn. Even dandelions can be an asset if you're trying to attract bees and other pollinating insects.

Grow some herbs. Many pollinators, especially bees, are drawn to herbs, such as rosemary and thyme, because of their intense scent.

Include a mix of native and non-native plants. Native bees are more likely to be attracted to the native flowers they are familiar with, but non-native plants such as catmint, zinnias, and lavender can also be irresistible to bees, especially if they produce a lot of nectar. By filling your garden with a variety—including annuals, perennials, shrubs, trees, ground covers, vegetables, and herbs— you’ll attract a greater diversity of bee species.

Keep in mind that most plants that attract bees will require full sun for at least half of the day. If you don’t have a sun garden, plant your bee flowers in containers and place them on a sunny patio or balcony.


Watch the video: Bats Desert Fruit Feast. Wings of Life


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