Skip to Content

Fascinating Facts about Bats & How To Attract Them ft Dr. Merlin Tuttle

Listen on your favorite player

iTunes | Stitcher | Spotify | Pandora | Amazon Alexa | iHeart Radio | YouTube | & more!

Show Notes

Join Nicole and Dr. Merlin Tuttle and Theresa of the Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation as they discuss much-maligned bats.

What You’ll Learn

  • Overcoming your fear.
  • Did bats really cause COVID-19?
  • How & Why to attract bats.
  • Effects on crop pollination and pest control.
  • How to select and locate your own bat house.

Our Guest

Merlin Tuttle, renowned bat expert, educator, and wildlife photographer, has studied and photographed bats worldwide for more than 60 years. He has been a leader in international bat conservation and his organization, Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation, is the most recent contribution by Merlin Tuttle to the world of bats.

With over 60 years of in-depth knowledge and experience, Merlin Tuttle founded MTBC to teach the world understanding and appreciation of the vital contributions bats make to human beings and the world we live in.

Merlin is also a Research Fellow in the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of Texas at Austin. His famous photos and case histories are used worldwide to document the importance of making conservation relevant to people, using the power of photography, and the urgent need to end careless disease speculation. He will also stress the need for better research documentation of bat values, and emphasize the key role of entertaining communication.

Resources & Links Mentioned

*Denotes affiliate links

Support The Show

Your support helps us continue to provide the best possible episodes!

Sign Up For Podcast Updates In Your Email Inbox!


Announcer: 0:01

Welcome to the Backyard Bounty Podcast from, where we aim to educate and inspire you by sharing practical information to help your homestead thrive. And now, here's your host, Nicole.

Merlin 0:36

We're delighted to be here with you and to have this opportunity to share bats.

Teresa 0:40

Hi, Nicole, happy to be here.

Nicole: 0:42

So Merlin, obviously, the conservation is named after you. So you are kind of the man of the hour. Can you tell me a little bit more about your history? How in the world did you get involved with bats, and then we can get into the nitty gritty from there.

Merlin 0:59

That could be a very long story. But to simplify it, I almost from birth was interested in nature and wildlife. And I got very fascinated by bats. When in Tennessee, I lived near a Batcave. And that was the high school age, I watched the bats carefully and observed that they were doing things that the book said that species didn't do. And so I got my mother to drive me up to the Smithsonian. So I could speak to the authors and explain to them that I was coming up with different findings than their books reported. They were very fascinated by high school kid coming in to tell them these kinds of things. And they gave me several 1000 bat bands and suggested maybe I should go see where the bats actually when the book said they lived in one cave year round, I thought they were migrating because they only showed up in the cave. I was watching in the spring and fall Well, in a great stroke of luck. Within two months, I discovered many of my banded bats 100 miles north of where I abandoned them in the fall. Now that was a big surprise because even though I suspected their migrating, everybody would have thought they were going south for the winter. But they'd actually gone North that got me quite excited. And eventually abandoned 42,000 bats in one study and tracked them for 20 years. And that became my doctoral thesis.

Nicole: 2:31

Wow that's a fascinating start. I I can't imagine as a high school kid going to the Smithsonian and saying, Hey, you guys are wrong. But that was quite a shock to them.

Merlin 2:44

Well, I was a little more polite than that. I did it. I did take meticulous field notes. And I had a voucher specimen said they I was eyes identifying the bat correctly. And I was well organized, but I didn't just go tell them that they didn't know what they're talking about. But, of course, they did take an interest in me that became a lifetime interest Dr. Hanley, Charlie Hanley, who was head of division of mammals at the time, ended up dropping everything and spending nearly a whole day showing me around behind the scenes. And he ended up being my mentor and hired me straight out of college to lead a major research project for himself.

Nicole: 3:25

So what are their activities were you involved in along the way? And how did you go about founding the bat conservation?

Merlin 3:31

Well, after I finished my PhD degree, I was very lucky to get a job where I was able to devote almost full time to research every winter when it got cold and Milwaukee I had for Africa or Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, Australia or Latin America. And being able to study and photograph bats full time, I became acutely aware of just how misinformed most of the world was about bats. In fact, I became aware of this much earlier when, as a doctoral student working on my thesis work, I had cave owners that poured kerosene into their caves and lit them on fire, burning 1000s of the bats that I was trying to study all because somebody had told him that their bats might give them rabies, when in fact, the species of bat that I was studying has never to this day ever been known to transmit a single case of rabies to human. But as I traveled the world and saw how misinformed people were and how they were killing bats and mass, you know, bats form the biggest aggregations of any mammal on earth other than humans. And in doing that they're very vulnerable. You can kill millions at a time by simply closing a cave entrance or setting it on fire. And as I look learn more and more about the value and importance of bats. And how disasters, human fear and killing was in terms of our own human interest and well being, I got to speaking out more and more about the day is the bats and the need to conserve them. And I thought at the time that existing conservation organizations would step up and do something for bats. But in those days, bats were so unpopular, you know, almost everybody virtually knew that all bats are most of them, at least, are rabid, and that they would attack you and it was awful. So even though leading traditional conservation organizations of the world one nothing to do with bats, they were viewed as too hopelessly unpopular to be helped. But I did discover along the way that when properly informed, tactfully people listen, and could change their attitudes. And it was almost like converting smokers. There's nobody harder on smokers than ex smokers. And people would become quite excited about the truth about bats and sharing it. And I finally got up the nerve to believe that I could actually make a difference, and founded a nonprofit organization to conserve bats. And it started surprising everybody with its success. And after a couple years of leading it out of my office at the Milwaukee Public Museum in Milwaukee, I realized that it was taking way more time than I could afford to devote to that and continue my research as well. So I finally announced my resignation from what was undoubtedly one of the world's premier research positions, and announced my intention of founding a conservation organization for bats. And I can assure you that everybody thought I was stark raving mad for doing it. But it was a big success. And we have made a huge difference for bats, not nearly as much as needs to be made, because right now they're getting blamed for all kinds of things based on pure speculation that is very much exaggerated and leading to people massively going out and killing bats again.

Nicole: 7:25

So during your time of research, what was your most exciting finding, or your most surprising observation that you made?

Merlin 7:34

Well, my most exciting findings early on didn't really have much to do with my eventual conservation interest. But I discovered that there was a bat that feeds on frogs, and that it could identify all the species of frogs in the jungle and tell which ones were poisonous and which ones weren't. And it would only attack to eat the ones that of course, wouldn't be poisonous. And not only did I discover that the bats could do that, but I found that the bats could be trained. And once I learned that I could train bats that had a lot to do with my subsequent success in both research and photography of bats. So I benefited tremendously from early research that had little to do with teaching the world about the value of bats unless you think there are too many frogs.

Nicole: 8:31

So would you consider bats to be an intelligent animal?

Merlin 8:35

Extremely, I have almost endlessly been personally amazed at bat intelligence. When I first started training bats I had as a teenage boy, learn falconry and train Falcons to hunt used to have a lot of fun going out hunting with my Hawk in the evening. But those same principles applied to bats. Except that for a long time, I thought that there were just a few bats that were so intelligent that I could train them. I thought it was the carnivores that they needed extra intelligence for their hunting. But just a few years ago, I was in Borneo to photograph tiny wooly bats and for your audience, anyone who's interested, if you go to my website at, there's a photo gallery there where you can look up and see the wooly bats that live in pitcher plants. And there's even a video Youtube video available showing one of these bats trying to train me. But to get back to my story about intelligence, these little woolly bats and Borneo only weigh four grams. So that's about the equivalent little less than a US nickel. The very small bats and nobody had ever thought of trying to keep them alive in captivity because they were so small and delicate. They just assumed it wasn't feasible, but I convinced them that I'd had enough experience that I could pull it off, I wanted to photograph them entering and exiting their pitcher, plant ruse. And it could only be done in a set in my studio because out in the swamp where they lived, you had to wade the waist deep in the swamp to get to them. There are dense vines everywhere, and it rained unpredictably seemingly every few minutes. So I needed to have one indoors, I brought one into my studio, and the first evening, I hand feed mealworms, I just held it in one hand and would hand it mealworms with the other hand, and it learned eat out of my hand. Then I released him into the studio left and didn't come back until the next morning, my wife Paula and I came back the next morning to work. And as soon as we walked into the studio, this bat recognized me is opposed, you know, he could have gone either one of us, but he immediately came to me and started flying up and bumping me in the nose. And I don't know why I should have intuitively known what he was up to. But it just seemed apparent to me that he was trying to get my attention to feed him. So I went and got a meal worm and as soon as I held it out to him, he came and took it from my fingers. Now I find that absolutely mind blowing. Here's a little animal doesn't even weigh as much as a nickel that has been in captivity just overnight, fed once out of my hand. And then the next morning when my wife and I walk in, he knows who fed him. And he knows to bump me in the face. I mean, why not bump me in my chest or my knee or my elbow or somewhere else? Sure, but you know, to come and bump me in the face. And then as soon as I held up a mealworm. And again, remember, he had never seen a mealworm before the night before. As soon as I held up the mealworm in my hand, he flew right over and took it. And I wouldn't even tell that story. It seems so ridiculously impossible, except that my wife, Paula grabbed a spare camera and got it on video showing the bat doing that. Wow. And you can actually see it on YouTube.

Nicole: 12:03

Well, I'll definitely have to check that out and then put a link in in the show notes, because I'm sure listeners will want to see that video as well.

Merlin 12:09

Yeah, since then, I caught another related bat in Taiwan. And I was supposed to photograph it chasing moths their crop pests. And unfortunately, because of heavy rains, they weren't able to catch the bat for me to photograph until two nights before I was supposed to leave the country. And I figured there there's hopeless but I decided to at least try. You know, there are just as many personalities and IQs in the world of bats as there are in the world of humans. And the first night this guy, unlike the one in barneo just was having nothing to do with me. And I was unable to game to eat anything out of my hand. I finally went out and released some of my precious moth supply in the studio. And I thought well, he'd catch them on his own, then at least I could keep him one more night he wouldn't starve to death. But I came back a little later and their wings on the floor. So I knew you'd eaten. But he never would have anything to do with me that first night. The next night. When I came back to see how he was doing. He immediately flew over to the mosquito net side of the studio where I enter it sure looked like he was trying to come to me. Well, I went in. And this is even more unbelievable than the first story. He started bumping me in the nose just like the one in Borneo. And I got a meal worm held it up. And he immediately came and took it.

Nicole: 13:42


Merlin 13:42

And within the next hour, I was able to train that bat to go sit in a certain place and wait for me to get a moth ready. And then when I'd release the moth, I could call him and i'd know exactly which corner where he was going to come from and when he was going to rise so I could release them moth time just right. And even then it's very, very difficult to get this kind of picture. You can take hundreds without getting a good one. But I ended up getting the best pictures of my entire career of a bat chasing a moth because that guy was trainable within about an hour.

Nicole: 14:18

That's incredible. I feel like I could talk to you about 18 different subjects about bats already because I'm so intrigued by your research and, and just what you shared with us already. But as far as bats here in North America, you know, you mentioned that they kind of have been getting a bad rap so and possibly blamed for things like rabies and in COVID. What is your thought on that?

Merlin 14:44

Well, let's do with the one of the time they're both big subjects. Back when I first became involved in conserving bats, almost everybody just knew that most bats are rabid. That was what the media had said and you have to understand that their various fields. You know, this isn't something that just happened today. We've gotten more and more sophisticated over time and wordsmithing to scare people into giving money for what we want to study. Sure, and rabies budgets went through the ceiling back in the 70s and early 80s. By grossly exaggerated claims against bats.

Teresa 15:23

I'll put a link we have a resource that details all of rabies history and up to date information about rabies in perspective. So to save you from doing too much background detail, we can link to that.

Nicole: 15:36

Wonderful. Thank you, Teresa.

Merlin 15:37

Well, the truth is that in all of the United States and Canada combined, we only have one to two human cases of rabies caused by a bat annually, that makes it one of the most rare disease events that you can imagine. And all we have to do to avoid worrying about rabies from bad is just, you know, if you find one that can be caught and handled, it's probably sick as the reason you can catch it. They're smart enough to stay away from us when they can. If we pick up a sick one, and get bitten, then we still have the chance to go check with a doctor and get vaccinated against rabies or have the bat tested first, better yet, and then only if it's does have rabies, should we get vaccinated. Most of those bats that are sick don't have rabies. 95% of them don't. But let's not take any chances. All we have to do though, to avoid getting any disease from a bat period. Just don't handle them. Bats only bite in self defense if handled, and they're absolutely nothing to fear they. The old woman's magazines and I remember there was a men's magazine where there was a story, claiming that while on safari in Africa, bats came out of a cave and chase down these men and they just were so lucky to escape with their lives. And then there were Family Circle magazine published a story years ago, it was like an Alfred Hitchcock movie, bats attack this family and they had him trapped in their home for three days and nights while they tried to get in the doors and windows to get the people. And you know, those kinds of stories are just complete fantasy land. And today we're seeing a resurgence of that type of gross exaggeration involving a new set of diseases. It probably will amaze many of you pay attention to disease stories in the news to hear that there still hasn't been a single case of SARS, Mirror's, COVID, or Ebola being traced to a bat, we hear about related viruses in bats. But bats are an ancient group of mammals. And so it only stands to reason that some of their original viruses would have been involved in the evolutionary history of subsequently evolved mammals, most of the viruses of the world have yet to be discovered and described, we only know of something like 1% or less of the world's viruses. So we can find a new and anywhere we look. And unfortunately, bats are very convenient to sample it's easy to put a trap and in bad cave entrance and catch hundreds or 1000s. So they can be sampled quickly. People don't know much about them. They're thus susceptible to believing almost any exaggerated tale told about a bad and the media sales readership by putting out scary headlines. So it's a virtual perfect storm made against bats these days, there's no proof that a bad has transmitted any of these so called emerging diseases directly to a human.

Teresa 18:57

I was just going to interject and say, for people that aren't familiar with sampling, and how those scientific documentation processes go, to have a legit sample size, you're supposed to have a sample of at least 30. So for example, if you are going to test you know, can we find so and so something in these tigers, you would have to find 30 Tigers to be the sample for your study to be legitimized as like a solid sample size. So that's why it's relevant to Merlin to say that it's easy to catch 100 bats in five minutes, you just put up an net, you know, and that's what makes them so attractive to people that want to get out of study quickly because they can find those samples rather than how long would it take you to get find 30 tigers, you know, it could take years. Whereas you can get your sample size in a day if you're doing it on bats.

Merlin 19:58

In minutes.

Teresa 19:59

Minutes. Yeah. So I think it's important to say that for because sometimes, you know, people may not understand what it takes, or why is that relevant? What does it mean that they're easy to sample?

Nicole: 20:12

Sure, yeah. Thank you for that clarification. I did not know what that meant either.

Merlin 20:17

Well, we're told that some of these viruses like SARS, COV2, we've been told that it's 96% genomically, identical to a virus found in bats. Well, we are 98% genomically, identical to chimpanzees. And I don't think anybody's having trouble discriminating between humans and chimpanzees. But those who aren't familiar as virology, you know, you hear something like that. And it sounds really impressive. But what they're not telling us is, you know, they're we're hearing stories about how bat can just fly over and poop on you and infect you with Ebola. That is complete wild speculation of the worst order. There's no proof that any bat has ever had Ebola has ever transmitted Ebola. And there's no evidence that a bat has ever flown over and pooped on somebody and made him sick with anything.

Teresa 21:15

What's really dangerous about claims and that speculation is that it gets shared, you know, someone says it, and someone else says, and it gets spread rapidly, because it's sensational. Sure, and then it trickles into dare I segue into like, our backyards where like, your neighbors are saying, like, "Oh, I heard this. So don't put up a bat house." You know, people get scared by this sensationalized just speculation.

Nicole: 21:43

That's actually kind of why I wanted to do an episode on bats. And I thought I could ask you about this here in a moment. But for Christmas, I asked my husband for a bat house and he was not so sure that he wanted to put a bat house up. So this episode may or may not be motivated by my desire to prove him wrong, but...

Merlin 22:10

Well, I can assure you that you know, there are hundreds of 1000s of bats in America alone now living in backyard bat houses, and we don't know of a single case where a human has gotten any disease from one of these bats. In fact, let me point out that, for example, we want to talk about Ebola, which has very disproportionately frightened Americans. The first bat that was speculated to be the origin of Ebola was the struckler or flying fox. These bats, hundreds of 1000s of them have lived in major cities of Africa for hundreds of years. There are hundreds of 1000s living in Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast, and not even a single time has there been record an outbreak of disease caused by these bats even though there are hundreds of 1000s of living in cities all over Africa, when Ebola broke out, it came from the country and was spread to the cities by people. It doesn't make any sense to blame animals that we've been living just fine with for hundreds of years, in fact, throughout our history, and blame them for things now that they've never caused in the past and aren't very likely to cause in the future. There was a study done in 2017, that got huge attention that claimed that bats had more viruses than other mammals. But that study examined almost twice as many bats as all other kinds of mammals combined. Now, that's just a viral witch hunt. You know, since most viruses aren't even known, we're going to find more where we look. A more recent study published this year concluded that bats didn't have any more viruses than any other animals did. But we still hear endless talk about how bats are uniquely dangerous because they have all these extra viruses. And there's no scientific basis for that claim.

Teresa 24:09

And might I add that there is scientific basis for the finding that bats are not any riskier than any other animal. They're not especially risky disease carriers can they're, they're just the same as any other animal. And all this stuff is cited on the links that I'm going to share with you. So if anyone's interested in looking at like those exact publications and those scientific studies, they're all cited on our resources.

Nicole: 24:36


Merlin 24:37

Well, let me point out that here in Austin, where we live years ago, when a million and a half bath start moving into crevices under our downtown bridge, the Congress Avenue Bridge, health officials, just as they are now very confidently warned everybody that these bats are mostly rabid and would attack that they were dangerous. People started signing petitions. To have the force the city to eradicate them, I convinced the city that they were beneficial and harmless. And decades later, these bats are one of our state's biggest tourist attractions. Millions of people have come to Austin to enjoy watching these bats, they watch them close up. And the bats simply bring in millions of tourists dollars every summer control tons of crop pests every night. And I've never attacked anyone or given a disease to anyone and all these years and millions of people coming here to see them.

Nicole: 25:36

So is it safe to say that as long as somebody doesn't go pick up a bat that for the most part, bats are pretty safe? I see a lot of things online saying are bats dangerous or do bats attack people, but it sounds like that that really isn't the case at all.

Merlin 25:52

And there there are lots of claims that bats can attack you in your sleep and bite you without your knowing it. That's certainly not my experience. No one alive has been around more bats more often in more places than I have. I have personally handled and photographed hundreds of species of bats on every continent where they exist. I've spent days and nights in caves surrounded by millions of them. I have never seen an unprovoked attack. I've never been bitten by a bat unless I was handling it doing something that frightened it into self defense.

Nicole: 26:28

So for all intensive purposes, it sounds like there's really no legitimate reason to be scared of them.

Merlin 26:36

Everything we do has some level of risk. But the most risky thing I can think of that we do every day is drive to work. Til COVID came along and stopped us from driving. We fear most of what we know least right? And a good example of that. If you ask somebody how they feel about flying even I am more nervous getting on a plane than I am right into the airport in a taxi. But far more people die of collisions right into the airport in a taxi then die from plane crashes. We just fear the unknown and bats are part of the unknown, where bats are big and conspicuous like out in the Pacific islands where they have three to almost six foot wingspans people eulogize them as folk heroes. They see them they roost out in the tree tops there. And they don't fear them. It's where bats are tiny and hard to see well, that we most fear them.

Nicole: 27:35

What are some other common misconceptions or misunderstandings that you've heard about bats that you'd like to set the record straight on?

Merlin 27:43

Well, the main record I'd like to sit straight is that for anyone who simply doesn't handle bats, or doesn't attempt to eat them, the odds of contracting any disease from bats are incredibly small. There are hundreds of us bury searchers, who for the last 100 years or so I'm not quite that old, but I have been studying them for more than 60 years, not a one of us has contracted a disease from a bat. Now there's one thing there is I think one or two researchers have contracted rabies. But those were cases where they didn't realize that they needed to get vaccinated before getting bit by bats. I like other researchers am vaccinated against rabies. But we're not protected against any of these other diseases that are supposedly so scary coming from bats. And not a single one of us has contracted any of these Ebola like diseases from a bat. We work with them all the time. You know, if anybody should know about bats being dangerous, it would be us and you know, people. In many parts of the old world, millions of people eat bats. And you'd figure that by now they should have figured out that this was a very dangerous thing. If all these speculations about bats were true. The people rarely tolerate in commonly kill what they fear. And bats are unfortunately, on the wrong side of that fence. They're just poorly understood so easily feared and commonly killed. But I'd rather get back to why bats are valuable and what could happen if we lose them.

Nicole: 29:29

You know, one of the things I wanted to talk about is why we should have bats in our backyards and ways to encourage them and talk about bat houses. So maybe we could just start with why we should have them around.

Merlin 29:42

Well, I think Austin, Texas is a very good demo, the fact that we can live happily and with great value with bats. You know, we're expanding our population tremendously and we're taking over most of the world we're going to have to learn live in harmony with nature, not just say, you know, these animals are valuable, but they're dangerous. So we're going to make them stay in this preserve over here where we don't go, we need the activities performed by bats. If we say we're going to protect this cave over here, now they better stay over there so we don't come in contact with them. How's that going to control mosquitoes in our backyard? We're not going to benefit from crop protection, mosquito control or anything else if we assume that they're so dangerous that we have to keep them in separate parts of the world from us. Here in Austin our bats are eating tons of insects a night, mostly crop and yard pests. And just in the Texas Hill Country. Our Parks and Wildlife Department estimates that bats are worth about $1.4 billion a summer to agriculture. In the United States as a whole that figures close to $23 billion. They're doing all kinds of things their huge value go a little bit south into Mexico and the whole tequila and mezcal industries are worth more than a billion dollars annually in Mexico are dependent upon bats to pollinate the garbage from which those products come. If you go to Southeast Asia the durian sales for billions annually it's but it's considered the king of Asian fruits, and it can't even be grown in an orchard without bats to pollinate the flowers and yet, orchard is that grow durians often mistakenly think they're harming their crops. Because as soon as the bat pollinates a durian flower, it drops its petals to the ground. This signals to the next bed coming at this flower has already been visited. Go to the next one that hasn't. It's a wonderful, clever system. But when the farmer sees this happening, I have had them tell me from the Philippines to Thailand that the bats are destroying their crop, and they want to know one of the first questions "How can we kill more of them?" And yet, if they succeeded, they would destroy their livelihood and losing bats is a very costly undertaking. For example, a large proportion of the world's chocolate supply comes from Indonesia, where it's been estimated that bats are saving cacau growers approximately $780 million annually in what would be insect predation losses if the bats weren't there in Thailand. A cave, that I got protected years ago. Now has its calling is recovered. And entomologists estimate that it's bats are saving local rice growers $300,000 annually in the Mediterranean, a recently published study. Well, it's actually published in 2014, or 15 showed that by simply building small bat houses and locating them strategically around rice paddies that they could eliminate the need for pesticide spraying. Now there's an interesting caveat for that, that wouldn't have worked if they hadn't saved some natural forests nearby. There's actually Parkland near those crops. So the bats in the offseason, when there's no pest to eat can go into the natural forest and still survive with food. When we turn the world into a mass monoculture. we eliminate many of our best natural balances from nature that can't survive in these places, bats are uniquely valuable because for example, our freetail bats can travel long distances, they can climb 1000s of feet above ground and catch tail winds and speed them up to almost 100 miles an hour. So that what would be a monoculture for one animal is a patchwork for these bats because they can move around so much. And in the spring when corn earworm and armyworm moths migrate into America for Mexico, our freetail bats intercept them 1000s of feet above ground in one bat can catch enough of those moths to prevent them from laying 20,000 or more eggs on crops. That's enough to force a Texas farmer to spray multiple acres with pesticides at a cost of $74 an acre. And we're just beginning to look at the tip of the iceberg of what bats do to help farmers. These kinds of things are going on worldwide. And it's highly unfortunate that we're now spending billions of dollars trying to prove that bats are deadly dangerous carriers of disease, when we should be spending those kinds of dollars investigating how they can help us.

Nicole: 35:02

You know, I think it's often forgotten that bats are a pollinator in North America. Do we have any pollinator bats here? Or are they just insect eaters?

Merlin 35:12

In Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, right, at the southern borders. We have nectar bats that come up in the spring and pollinate our Agaves. In fact, the beautiful Saguaro and Oregon pipe cacti for which Tucson is so famous are highly dependent upon bat pollination and seed dispersal. One of the things most people don't understand about bats is that, you know, when you think about pollinators, you generally think about the birds and bees. But truthfully, bats in the world of pollination are superstars. They carry far more pollen far further than any other pollinator.

Nicole: 35:53

And as far as the insect eaters, you mentioned mosquitoes, but what are some of the other insects that they target? I assume that it's specific, possibly to the breed, or the species rather, but just kind of a general, I guess, overview of some of the insects that they like to eat.

Merlin 36:10

Bats eat a huge variety of insects, moths, beetles, stinkbugs that really surprised a lot of people to find out they eat stink bugs, but in fact, macadamia growers in South Africa are now funding research to figure out how to attract more bats their orchards because it's been found that bats have several species are primary controllers of green stinkbugs that are the primary threat to macadamia growers. Sometimes it's a misnomer. In the literature, you hear the bats eat bees, they don't eat bees, bees, sting them just like anybody else. And they don't really overlap in their activity periods much either. Where that myth comes from is that bees and ants are all in the same order of insects, the hymenoptera. And in the old studies, we couldn't identify prey of the bats from their feces beyond order level. So often, it was reported that bats fit heavily on hymenoptera. And people not knowing any better would write in their publications that they preyed on bees, when in fact, almost 100% of that is probably preying on flying ants.

Teresa 37:24

Bats also mosquitoes, and they eat the mosquitoes that carry West Nile and Zika viruses. That's really cool.

Merlin 37:32

There was a study done in Wisconsin published just a couple years ago, in which they looked at the food habits of bats living in backyard bat houses. And they specifically homed in on to the most abundant bats a little brown and the big brown bats. The Big Brown was a species that we thought traditionally ate mostly beetles. But that was because of the bias of searching feces. hard parts from beetles are far easier to recognize than parts of mosquitoes in feces. Well, when they did a really thorough study in Wisconsin, they found there was something like 15 species of mosquitoes that both those species of bats were preying on, and that I think it was at least five of those species were carriers of West Nile virus. And there's a study done at the University of Michigan A few years ago, where a bat biologist and entomologist teamed up, and they showed that bats did have a significant effect in reducing egg laying success of female mosquitoes. These are things that are going practically unstudied, that could make a whole lot more difference for us than trying to speculate diseases from bats.

Nicole: 38:43

So it sounds like there's a lot of really great reasons to encourage bats to be around. And as we talked earlier, really not as many reasons to be afraid of them as one might think. So what are some ways that we can attract bats? You know, a lot of times if we want bees or butterflies, we can just plant some specific flowers. But I'm going to assume it's not quite that easy to encourage bats to stay in our area.

Merlin 39:10

No, anybody that tells you that you can have bats in your yard by planting a certain kind of flower, that's probably indicative of someone who doesn't know too much about bats. If you go to our website and look under Resources, selecting a quality bad house, we do give advice on if you want to purchase one, the things that you should see in a bat house to know that it's quality bat house there. There's a lot of competition among bat house vendors for you know, selling the least expensive bat house that can attract the most sales. You don't want to look for the least expensive one you want to look for the most successful one. And we do list several vendors that we have certified as producing really quality bat houses, we will probably by early in the new year, have out an all new resource. It'll be the leading resource on bat house use worldwide, but particularly focused on America. So that will be something coming out. Hopefully in not too many weeks.

Nicole: 40:21

Exciting. When I was looking at the bat houses, I noticed that, you know, it said it takes a while for bats to move in. It's not that you just put it up and you know, they just show up overnight. Why does it take a while for them to move in?

Merlin 40:35

Good question. But it's not true. They don't ever do show up overnight. I photograph bats this summer that are in a blog that you can find on our website, where a young lady here in Austin that builds and sells bad houses, she sold a bat house to somebody, they put it up and in less than a week it was fully occupied with more bats and could fit in it.

Nicole: 40:59


Merlin 41:00

That probably implied that they were desperate in the area. In areas where we're bats aren't already abundant, it can take a year or more for them to discover your bat house. Most bad houses are occupied within the first 6 to 18 months. But we know of cases where bat houses have gone vacant for 5,10, and even 20 years, and then all of a sudden attracted bats.

Teresa 41:27

I think it's also good to note that bats are highly, highly sophisticated and they choose their homes carefully unless they are like really desperate for somewhere to live. So even if you do live in like a wooded area, they might enjoy having the bat house, they also like to move around. So, you know if they live in the woods, they might come to the bat house and go to the woods. So there's lots and lots of variables that come into play when you put up a bat house. And so that's why it's really important to get a quality one bats will want to live in whether they have somewhere else they like to hang out or not.

Merlin 42:04

Well, there are several factors that need to be considered in our new resource. It'll be coming out hopefully by early in the new year, we're going to show you how you can make very simple bat houses so that you can put up two or three. To begin with and test the local bats needs. You put one in more sun and one more shade, that kind of thing, because the weather is different in different areas and different species have different requirements. But generally speaking, if you live where there are bats trying to enter buildings, then you're virtually certain that you could attract bats. If you put up a quality bat house, it doesn't necessarily mean that has been expensive when it just needs to meet the criteria that we set out in our instructions about what bats want. If you live near a river or lake or areas of mixed forest, those kinds of things are attractive to bats, and up the odds of your success. You can probably attract bats across most of us. There are a few places where it's more difficult. But by experiment with local needs, there are people out there who have spent years experiment and they start out as complete failures. But they kept crying and testing and eventually ended up attracting 1000s of bats. Most of my favorite stories. I designed a bat house for the University of Florida in Gainesville, more than 20 years ago, it was a big one, he was 18 feet square and the bats didn't move in for a long time. The first seven moved in after it was two years old. And in the meantime, the media had a hay day, giving me a hard time about my expensive bat house that the bats didn't like. But once they started moving in, they expanded really rapidly. And within 10 years, they had a quarter of million. Oh my goodness. And they've now build two more similar structures and in the bathroom reportedly approaching a half a million.

Nicole: 44:18


Merlin 44:19

And this has become a major tourist attraction on campus.

Nicole: 44:23

I guess you proved them wrong.

Merlin 44:26

Well, you find everybody under the sun taking credit for the bat house now, but I was the sole owner of credit when there would be a big failure.

Teresa 44:35

What do you think took him so long to move in there Merlin why like why does the timing vary? Because obviously they like the house.

Merlin 44:43

Well, the I think that the problem was that we didn't understand how much they needed heat even in a hot climate and the original bat house called a bat barn down there. has a big attic over the roosting. Above the roosting and crevices. And the roosting and crevices are just like three quarters an inch to an inch wide between vertical boards that are something like 15 inches deep. And with the big adding shading that it prevented from heating. And I think that the big problem was that it wasn't warm enough. Finally, when enough bats built up, and they started having enough that they could heat small sections with their shared body heat, then they're able to take off and do really well. It went from 200, rearing young to 3000, rearing young, and then it just went amazing after that. But if I add that to do over again, I would put some smaller houses on the periphery and get them in those in build up the numbers until they're enough to heat sections of the bigger house, we're still learning an awful lot about bat houses. In the new resource that we're going to come out with, we have interviewed something like 20 of the most successful bat house users in America. And it's very fascinating to go over their findings. Depending on where they live and their weather and the species of bats present. Sometimes they come up with very different findings. But we're going to go through and sort those findings to kind of help better understand what the bats might want where you live.

Nicole: 46:32

That sounds like a really great resource. You mentioned that the bats need heat. And in reading about bat houses on my own, I saw that they needed to be placed in the sun. And so I assume that's to heat the bat house so that they can get heat. But my two questions for you are, why do they need heat. And in in my zero experience I would think that a cave is not a very warm place. So if they tend to roost in caves, and that's a cooler space. That seems counterintuitive.

Merlin 47:07

You're very perceptive, the vast majority of American bats do not attempt to rear young in caves. The caves are way too cold to permit them to do that they go into caves in the wintertime. They want caves that trap lots of cold air and store it from year to year so that even when they when they come in in September October, the cave is already cold and they can lower their body temperature dramatically. And that reduces their metabolic rate so that they can survive up to six months or more in hibernation before the insects become available again the next spring.

Nicole: 47:45

Oh. Okay.

Merlin 47:46

Bats, the rare young in case typically live in subtropical or tropical areas, but we do get interesting exemptions. I photographed bats on Hotsprings Island, about 75 miles west of Alaska, in Ireland and out in the ocean there. And bats were roosting in raw crevices on the ground, but they're geothermally heated, and so it was perfect. They could move out toward the entrance and get the temperature out near the entrance was rarely over 60 degrees, and they could go back so they get cool going down near the entrance they go back towards where the geothermal heat was coming from and get so hot, they would harm themselves that they got any closer. But bats that live in bat houses are ones that leave caves in the summer. For the most part now. Freetail bats here in Texas and in the southwest in Florida can live in in caves they don't in Florida, but they do here. They simply form large clusters and hate the caves. Speaking of large clusters Bracken cave, which I played a lead role in getting protection four years ago, houses more than 10 million bats their freetail bats, and those bats hate that cave. Amazingly, they're heating it by probably more than 20 degrees just through their shared body heat, you go into the cave, and if you were to approach a wall with bats on it would feel like you're approaching a radiant heater, the bat body temperatures like 102 degrees Fahrenheit, but when they're rearing young, those pups have to stay warm in order to grow properly. And they can only do that in caves that are extraordinarily warm or hateable. By the body heat of large numbers of adult bats in bat houses they actually would prefer that the temperature be close to 95 all the time during the day when the mothers are there with their pups. They can heat a bad house very substantially and heated probably by up to 20 degrees or more, then solar heating can heat the bat house. From the top side. If the house is tall enough, the bats can move vertically in the house to adjust temperature, they go up for heat and down to cool off. So it's not as simple as it might seem, and you hit the nail on the head when you're wondering how they could hang out. And in caves they don't just hang out in caves year around other than our free tails, which can heat heat their own caves and don't have to hibernate.

Nicole: 50:32

Well, I didn't know that bats hibernated, either. So I've I've learned a lot today. So other than putting up a bat house, is there any other tips or suggestions for encouraging bats to to hang around?

Merlin 50:46

Well, anything you can do to increase the amount of natural vegetation in an area is beneficial to bats. If you want them to help us control pests in our gardens and yards, they need also to have places to go like take cucumber beetles, they're horrible pests in our gardens. And one bat house colony of 150 Big Brown bats can eat enough cucumber beetles in a summer to prevent them from laying 33 million eggs. And if you've ever been a gardener hit by cucumber beetles, you know it doesn't take but a half a dozen of those eggs to give you a nightmare. These bats are very dependent on other food sources in the rest of the year when when cucumber beetles aren't available to eat coming after your garden. So if to the extent that we preserve hedgerows, parks, anything we can do to preserve natural vegetation, corridors of vegetation along rivers and things are very helpful in preventing flooding. And also in supporting a wide variety of insectivorous animals that help protect us from pests, particularly bats. You know, unless it's in your yard and about to fall on somebody, don't be too quick to cut down old snags. Bats originally depended very heavily on loose bark hanging on old snags or on woodpecker holes and snags. And it's because we've rid the country of most of these things that the bats are in such native shelter, we still have the insects, we just don't have the living space left for them.

Teresa 52:32

As far as like attracting bats. Another way to think about it is coming from the human side. And that educating humans, about the truth about bats is one of the most impactful things you can do to keep bats around because bats live everywhere in the world, and a keystone species and most of those places where they exist, so they're there. But to keep them there, humans have to get over their unfounded fears of bats. So by sharing the truth, like sharing your pictures, sharing a resource sharing what you've learned, is one of the most impactful ways to keep them around.

Merlin 53:16

Absolutely true. And I hope that your listeners will avail themselves. You know, if just for fun, I think virtually anyone is going to be totally blown away by the diversity of bats and what they do. And you look at my photo gallery.

Nicole: 53:33

Yeah, I'm definitely gonna have to take a look at that as soon as we're done, because I'm excited to take a look at the photos that you've taken, and especially with the stories that you've told me and see this, the pictures from the stories as well. I could talk to you for hours, your your stories are fascinating, and I absolutely love this stuff. This has been so much fun. I've absolutely loved every moment of talking to you here.

Merlin 53:57

Bats have never needed help more than they do right now, with all this propaganda. You know, the US Congress allocated $4.8 billion last year for looking for possibly pandemic causing viruses and a good share this money has been focused on bats. And it's inappropriate. It's a waste of public resources misdirected, causing a lot of damage. And this is a time when bats really really need help. And we're doing everything possible to provide that assistance. We help conservation oriented people and organizations worldwide with the information that you'll find on our website.

Nicole: 54:39

And it would be probably worth noting then can you tell us again, what is your website? Maybe if people don't want to put a bat house up? What are some other ways that they can support and help the bats?

Merlin 54:51

You can help bats a great deal by just sharing the information that bats are the dangerous animals they've been portrayed to be that they're actually incredibly valuable to have around and, and there's no reason to fear them.

Teresa 55:04

And you can use the resources on our website to help you find the language to do that, because it is kind of a nuanced topic. And you know, it's new for a lot of people. But even though you understand it's important, sometimes it's hard to find a way to say it.

Nicole: 55:18


Teresa 55:18

And we hope that our resources or blog assist you in being an ambassador for bats in that way. So our website is Merlin, And you can go there and the resources page will have a list of resources with citations, and then our blog, which you can sign up for to get those notifications in real time. And we do like more current publications and events and more current news in the blog. And then you can also join to become a member of MTBC. There's a you can join as a sustaining member or you can join for free just so that you get our newsletters a couple times a year. And all of that we hope will help you in sharing the truth and values of bats.

Merlin 56:04

Bats need ambassadors.

Nicole: 56:06

Well hopefully in our talk today, we can encourage people to look at bats and in a different light. And you know, they're not scary animals. In fact, they're quite beneficial. And we need them, simply.

Merlin 56:18

That's right. like them or not, we need them. If you hate mosquitoes, you'd better love bats.

Nicole: 56:24

Well, I think we can all agree that mosquitoes are are ones that we don't like.

Merlin 56:29

One bed can catch up to 1000 mosquito sized insects in a single hour.

Nicole: 56:34


Teresa 56:35

Yeah, there is a resource on our page with fun bat facts and bat values, just kind of like a bulleted listed. Those are the kind of things that you can just rattle off at your Christmas celebration once you have your bat house and your family grilling, and you can share those values and bad facts.

Nicole: 56:51

I will have to put that out for easy, easy access. Well, Merlin, and Teresa, thank you so much for sharing your time with me today. I feel like I could talk to you for hours about the amazing world of bats. I have learned so much stay in this has been so fascinating. Thank you both so much for your time. I really appreciate it.

Merlin 57:11

It's been a real pleasure to work with you.

Nicole: 57:14

And for those of you listening. Thank you so much for joining us for another episode of Backyard Bounty and we'll see you again next week.

Announcer: 57:20

Thank you for listening to Backyard Bounty, a podcast by Don't forget to subscribe and leave us a review. If you have a question you'd like us to answer on the show. please email us at ask at Also find us on Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube at Heritage Acres Market. All the links mentioned in this podcast will be included in the description. See you again next week!

Edited by PodSugar Audio Production & Editing

#backyardbountypodcast #heritageacresmarket

Pin This Episode

Bat held in hand

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.