Michigan's bats

Fiends or foe?

A young bat
A tri-colored bat, one of Michigan’s nine bat species. | Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Bats are an animal filled with mystery and intrigue, myths and misconceptions.  They instill fear in the minds of some, and fascination in others.  It’s safe to say that there is a lot of misunderstanding when it comes to bats. 

Bats are the only mammal in the world capable of sustained flight.  They are not rodents—in fact, they are more closely related to humans than to rodents.  The order they’re classified in, Chiroptera, means “winged hand.”  The bone structure of their wings (hands) is remarkably similar to human hands, with elongated fingers attached by membranes.  Bats are the only mammal capable of sustained flight.

There are over 1,200 bat species identified around the world, which comprises about 20% of the world’s total mammal species.  Bats are found on all corners of the earth except for the polar regions, and one species, the hoary bat, is Hawaii’s only native land mammal.  Michigan has nine bat species.

A common myth about bats is that they like to fly into your hair.  Insect-eating bats use a sophisticated hunting method called echolocation.  The way echolocation works is that the bat emits a very high frequency sound as it flies, and as the sound bounces off an object, the “echoes” that return are processed by the bat.  As potential prey sources are encountered, the bat increases the sound transmissions, which shortens the sound waves and helps the bat pinpoint an object.  This process is so precise that a bat can instantly discern whether something as fine as a human hair is a food object.  So, bats do not fly into your hair.  Bats do, however, sometimes fly close to people—they are going after the insects that are attracted to your heat and smell.

Different bat species specialize as either being insect/meat eaters, or pollinators/fruit eaters.  Michigan’s bat species are all insect eaters.  Since one bat can consume 500-1,000 mosquito-sized insects per hour, bats play a significant role in keeping insect populations in check.  This can be beneficial for agriculture, home gardeners, and those simply wanting to enjoy their backyard. 

Many other species found around the U.S. and other parts of the world are responsible for pollinating a wide array of plants.   This is accomplished when a bat sticks its head inside a flower in search of nectar.  Along the way, the fur on its face and neck pick up pollen, which is then transmitted to the next plant it feeds on.  A wide variety of food and other products we use are pollinated by bats, such as agave cactus, avocados, cashews, vanilla, bananas, figs, cloves, and peaches.

The bottom line is that bats are incredibly beneficial to us, and there are some simple things we can do to help protect them.  First, be cognizant of chemical use for insect control—these are the same insects that bats will be eating.  The same thing goes when trying to eradicate bats from a structure with poison—not only is this illegal, but there are many non-lethal ways of accomplishing this.  Third, protect their habitat.  For example, standing dead trees can provide roosting spots for bats—leave these trees standing.  Finally, building bat houses is a fun project to undertake as a family or with a youth group, and these can provide good homes for bats when their preferred natural habitat is scarce.  There are many simple bat house plans that can be obtained from a quick internet search.

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