Many people are unaware that over 500 plant species rely on bats to pollinate their flowers, including species of mango, banana, durian, guava and agave (used to make tequila). So, next time you drink some tequila or eat a mango, say thanks to the bats! The pollination of plants by bats is called chiropterophily.
Plants pollinated by bats often have pale nocturnal flowers (in contrast, bees are mostly attracted to bright, daytime flowers). These flowers are often large and bell shaped, and some bats have evolved specifically to reach the nectar at the bottom of them. The tube-lipped nectar bat of Ecuador and the banana bat that lives only on the Pacific coast of Mexico both have extraordinarily long tongues for this exact reason. The tube-lipped nectar bat’s tongue is more than one and a half times the length of its body!
While these plants rely on bats to pollinate their flowers, bats also rely on the fruit and flowers of these plants to survive. Disturbing this intricate system can have severe consequences. For example, in Mexico, the lesser long-nosed bat that is partly responsible for the pollination of agave plants, used to make mescal and tequila. However, in the majority of tequila production, farmers harvest the plant before it puts out its flowers, meaning it has to reproduce through cloning. This is bad for bats, as they feed on the flowers as well as pollinating them. It’s also bad for the agave crops, as they lack diversity – all tequila plants in one farming area have been traced to less than a handful of clones. Disease has recently killed off more than a third of the agave plants in some areas, something that might have been avoided by allowing more agave plants to flower and reproduce through pollination. Read more on our blog.