My wife and I like to sit on our back porch and watch the sunset each day. We do not make all of them, but we try to make as many as we can. We often see small bats darting in all directions feeding on bugs. Recently we were enjoying a particularly great sunset. The sky was a light blue with streaking clouds of dark gray, purple, orange, and white. It was amazing. As the streetlight came on, we could see a swarm of termites gathering around it. There were a lot of them, but we also noticed the increase in bats. There was a dozen at least, probably more, zipping in and out, darting in all directions. We enjoyed watching them and wondered where all of them were roosting.
Many people are afraid of these creatures. They have been associated with Halloween, horror, vampires, and rabies. They are creatures of the night, and that is unsettling in itself for many. But, as biologists say with most creatures, these stories and legends are just that… stories and legends. Some members of their population do carry rabies, but most do not and the transmission of the disease to humans is rare. The animals are small furry mammals that eat an enormous number of insects each evening, including flying termites and mosquitoes. Many help pollinate plants and help disperse seeds. They are really pretty cool.
There are around 1400 species of bats worldwide1, 13 of these are from Florida2. Though some species feed on fruit and nectar, most feed on insects and consume about half their body weight each evening doing so. The Bat Conservation International states that insect consuming bats may save U.S. farmers $23 billion dollars a year in pesticide use due to their insectivorous diet1. The agave plant, the one used to produce tequila, is primarily pollinated by bats. The 13 species found in Florida are all insectivores feeding on beetles, mosquitos, moths, and other agriculture and garden pests. They are truly beneficial.
Bats are mammals, having fur covered bodies, live birth with young nursing on milk, and being endothermic (warm blooded). Most connect bats with the mammalian order Rodentia (rodents) – often calling them “flying rats”, but – due to the type of teeth – they are actually in their own order Chiroptera. They are the only true flying mammals in the world, the flying squirrel is actually a glider, not a true flyer. They live in a variety of habitats in Florida including pine forests, hardwood forests, riverine systems, lakes, and in urban areas. They most often roost in the crevices of dead trees, beneath the dead fronds of palms, and in Spanish moss. But when available, they will use caves and are notorious for using buildings, culverts, and the underside of bridges.
They fly using wings that are actually thin skin between their extremely elongated fingers. They breed in the fall and give birth to a single pup in the spring. One of the legends is that they are blind. As mentioned above, this is a legend. Bats can see well and see better than we do in dim light. They do have the ability to use high frequency sounds to “echo” off objects in the dark (echolocation) which helps them find, and follow, their insect prey at night. You can notice this hunting tactic as the sun sets and view the bats darting in all sorts of directions chasing their prey.
Most of the 13 species of Florida bats can be found in the Florida panhandle, with the gray bat only found in Calhoun and Jackson counties and nowhere else in the state. Rabies is a concern with bats, and it is true that an infected bat with the disease can transmit it to humans, but this is very rare. That said, anyone who is bitten by a bat should seek medical attention. The animal was also connected with the transmission of COVID during the early period of the pandemic3. Bats, like many other mammals, can pass infectious diseases and there is also a fungal growth associated with their droppings that has caused medical problems with some humans. If working in an area where bat guano is abundant, a mask is recommended. If an injured animal is found in your yard, wear a pair of gloves and take it to your local wildlife rehabber.
Florida bats do face problems in our state with the loss of habitat. We often remove dead trees and cut dead fronds from palms. The benefit we receive from them (consuming thousands of pest insects each night) leads to a need for their conservation. To date, the white-nose syndrome, which has infected many bats north of us, has not reached Florida but is of concern. Despite the fear many have of this animal, they are quite beneficial and should be allowed to exist in our panhandle habitats.
Species found in Florida:
Mexican Free-tailed bat
Eastern red bat
Northern yellow bat
Gray bat – endangered; only found in Calhoun and Jackson counties.
Big brown bat
Rafinesque’s big-eared bat
Velvety free-tailed bat – only found in the Keys.
Florida bonneted bat
1 Bats 101. Bat Conservation International. https://www.batcon.org/about-bats/bats-101/.
2 Bats. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. https://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/profiles/mammals/land/bats/#:~:text=In%20Florida%2C%20there%20are%2013,and%207%20%E2%80%9Caccidental%E2%80%9D%20species..
3 Origins of Coronaviruses. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. https://www.niaid.nih.gov/diseases-conditions/origins-coronaviruses.