9 Ways To Attract Bats To Your Garden
Cut down on mosquitoes, naturally control garden pests, and support local ecology by attracting beneficial bats to your garden! Former organic farmer Logan Hailey explores 9 simple ways you can support endangered bat populations and enjoy a diverse garden ecosystem.
Bats are fascinating nocturnal creatures that play more ecological roles than we realize. In your garden, they help by controlling insect pests, pollinating flowers, and dispersing native plant seeds. They can significantly cut down on annoying mosquitoes and vegetable pest populations. Moreover, bats add unique diversity and balance to your landscape.
More than half of the bat species in the U.S. are severely declining, threatened, or listed as endangered. Loss of habitat and a fungal disease called White Nose Syndrome are the primary causes of bat population declines. Pollution, pesticides (which kill their insect food sources), hunting, and commercial guano harvesting are other key reasons for the decline. Some bats even face imminent risk of extinction.
You can do your part to help these friendly little mammals by designing a bat-friendly garden. Attracting these beneficial creatures to your landscape isn’t just beneficial to bat populations but can significantly improve your local ecology. Here are nine ways to draw bats to your garden for a symbiotic relationship between bats and humans.
Why Attract Bats?
Attracting these endangered nocturnal mammals doesn’t only benefit the environment, but it can help you! Bats add numerous advantages to the garden to help vegetable growers, native plant lovers, and landscapers. Their benefits include:
Natural Pest Control
Some bats eat over half their body weight in insects every night! When it comes to beneficial predators of insect pests, most of us think of ladybugs, parasitic wasps, and hoverflies.
However, insectivorous (insect-eating) bats are voracious bug eaters. They consume massive quantities of mosquitoes, moths, beetles, crickets, leafhoppers, armyworms, cucumber beetles, and so many more! As long as you don’t apply any broad-spectrum pesticides, bats are eager to aid in pest control for all garden plants.
Fun fact: one species (the pallid bat, Antrozous pallidus) eats nearly 2/3rds of their body weight in insects each evening and has been honored as the state bat of California. This species singlehandedly has saved California’s farmers over $1 billion in pest control.
Over 500 species of plants rely on bats for pollination! Bees and butterflies are the most popular pollinators, but nectar-eating bats do a lot of unexpected pollination work in the darkness of night. These small, winged mammals play a vital role in plant reproduction, particularly in southern and tropical regions where long-nose and long-tongue bats pollinate mango, avocado, durian, banana, agave, and guava plants.
Guano (Bat Manure)
One of the most prized fertilizers in the gardening world, bat guano is extremely rich in phosphorus and nitrogen without posing a fertilizer-burn risk. This gentle manure is extremely beneficial for any garden crop, but it is controversial to purchase in stores due to the harvesting risks to wild bat populations. When fertilizer collectors enter bat caves or habitats, they inadvertently spread the deadly fungus disease White Nose Syndrome, which is contributing to the widespread decline of bats. Attracting native bats to your yard is the perfect solution. You provide habitat to potentially endangered bat species, and your plants enjoy all the benefits of guano without the ecological damage.
In wild areas, some bats are crucial in distributing native seeds to populate and regenerate wild rainforests. Figs, almonds, agave, cashews, and papayas are heavily dependent on fruit-eating bats to disperse their seeds so they can propagate. Fruit bats only hang out (pun intended!) in subtropical and tropical regions, but gardeners in Florida, California, or Hawaii can provide a vital refuge for these endangered animals.
How to Attract Beneficial Bats
With all the pest control, pollination, and fertilization benefits they provide to humans, the least we can do is give back to the bats in our gardens! Attracting bats is not hard to do, but it helps to research the native bat species in your region to understand their specific needs.
Fortunately, most bats are fairly easy to please, just like the rest of us. All they ask for is a cozy home, fresh water, and plenty of chemical-free food (i.e., insects that haven’t been exposed to pesticides). Here are 9 practical ways to draw bats into your landscape.
Install Bat Boxes
Bees need hives, and birds need birdhouses, so of course, bats need bat boxes! A bat house is a single or multi-chambered structure mounted in the air or on the side of a building near the bats’ food and water resources. These wooden houses are now being marketed as mosquito-reducers, and they can be low profile and aesthetically pleasing for any landscape. They often look similar to a birdhouse or native bee box but have unique features.
These strategically placed structures mimic a bat’s natural roost, offering a cozy, safe habitat for nesting and roosting during the day when the rest of the garden is active. Bats need protection from harsh winters, stormy weather, and predators like hawks, owls, cats, and raccoons. They are unlikely to stick around your garden if you don’t offer them a home.
There are dozens of different bat house designs, but they all share the same basic structures:
- Solid Material: Wood, rubber, or light concrete are common materials. Depending on your climate, you may need to paint them a dark color to attract warmth in the north or a neutral color to prevent overheating in the south.
- Hanging: The easiest place to install a bat house is hanging on the side of a building, tree, garden shed, or a tall pole.
- Tight Spaces: Most bats are tiny and like to stay warm, but they still need to move around and roost. A minimum of 24” in height and 14”+ width is ideal, but larger houses are best.
- Chambers: A bat house can contain 2-5+ chambers, separate little “rooms” for roosting. Essentially, the box is divided into sections.
- Sealant: Bats must stay dry and protected from the elements, so be sure water can’t get in. Choose a non-toxic sealant like silicone to prevent chemical contamination.
- Open Bottom: Like chickens, the bats poop while they roost. An open bottom prevents the buildup of guano and can allow you to collect it below if you want to apply it to your soil.
Many pre-built bat boxes are available online, but if you want to build your own, we love this bat house installation guide from Bat Conservation International.
When it comes to placement, bat houses should be:
- High in the Air: Bats are flying creatures that prefer their homes at least 10-20 feet above ground.
- In A Sunny Location: Choose an east or south-facing area with 6-8 hours of exposure to direct sunlight. Morning light is the most important. However, in southern climates, bat houses need shade, or the pups can overheat and die.
- Provide Nighttime Darkness: Bats don’t like porch lights or artificial night lighting of any kind.
- Close to Water: Nursery bat colonies prefer roosts within ¼ mile of a water source.
- Near Diverse Plants: Forest edges, shrubby side landscapes, or varied native plantings are ideal for attracting bats because there are lots of places to forage and hide.
Bat boxes are the quickest and most effective way to draw these mosquito eaters. After installing a bat house, it’s vital to check it every few months to ensure it’s not too hot or infested with wasps. If you find that wasps have nested in the space, it’s vital to remove the nest with an organic or physical means. Spraying with insecticides will render the box ineffective because bats are ultra-sensitive to chemicals.
Once per growing season, usually in the fall, check if your bat house needs to be repainted or resealed before winter arrives. Before cleaning or maintaining your box, observe the area around dusk to watch for any bats leaving. You may need a flashlight to tend the house while the bats feast on insects!
It can take up to 1 year for bats to find and inhabit a new bat house, so be patient!
Grow Native Plants
Bats are attracted to local insects that feed on native plants. While bats don’t directly eat the native plants, they need native species to provide food and habitat for their insect meals.
In subtropical and tropical zones, native fruit trees and nectar-producing plants are primary foods for fruit-eating bats. However, in most temperate zones, insect-feeding bats are the predominant population. In fact, 70% of all bats are insectivorous, including almost all of the bat species in the United States and Canada, except for three unique nectar-feeding bats near the Texas-Arizona border.
You are trying to attract insectivorous bats to your garden. Native plants are indirect mediators in this process because they attract the moths and insects that bats love to eat.
When you plant diverse indigenous vegetation, you create a natural ecosystem in your backyard. This attracts local insect populations, thus drawing bats for a reliable food source throughout the season. Best of all, many bat-friendly native plants are also great for butterfly gardens and local bee populations. Some native plants also provide roosting habitat.
A great bat garden should include:
- Native sage for your region (Salvia spp.)
- Yucca (Hesperaloe spp.)
- Sunflower (Helianthus spp.)
- Goldenrod (Solidago spp.)
- Coneflower (Echinacea spp.)
- Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
- Phlox (Phlox paniculata)
- Herbs like rosemary, thyme, marjoram, and lemon balm (Cornell University bat experts recommend avoiding cinnamon, eucalyptus, and peppermint, as they can repel bats with their scent)
Remember, just because a plant is native to the United States does not mean it is indigenous to your specific region. Use the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s Native Plant Database or the Native Wildlife Federation’s Native Plant Finder to find more species native to your area. A local native plant nursery will also have fantastic recommendations.
Add a Pond, Birdbath, or Fountain
Once you’ve provided food and shelter, bats still need water! If you don’t live near a stream, river, or lake, you can attract them with a birdbath, fountain, or your own garden pond.
A garden water feature is beautiful and essential for local wildlife, also benefiting butterflies, native birds, and even koi fish! Kevin added an epic 2000-gallon garden pond to his backyard and documents some of his learning lessons in this video:
If you don’t have space for a pond, no worries! Bats will be happy with a standard bird bath or mini fountain. Try to centrally locate the water between your bat boxes and the native plant garden where they will feed. Like most of us, bats prefer to sleep, eat, and drink in an easily accessible space.
Do Garden Water Features Attract Mosquitoes?
Many gardeners hesitate to add water features because they fear attracting mosquitoes. However, mosquitoes are unlikely to take hold as long as the water is aerated, moving, and fresh (by a low-energy fountain pump or regular dumping and refilling). Moreover, bats, dragonflies, and birds eagerly eat mosquito larvae from standing water.
So if mosquitoes nest in your birdbath or pond, rest assured that they will provide even more food for your bat friends who love to feast on the blood-sucking nuisance insects.
Ironically, bats have been framed as nasty vampires when mosquitoes are the true modern-day vampires. Only 3 of the 1,300 global bat species feed on blood, and they only reside in Central and South America. However, in a hilarious myth-busting twist, bats protect us from mosquitos and thus prevent blood-sucking tendencies!
Bats eat insects, and pesticides kill insects, so you can do the math! Pesticides are extra problematic for bats because they can be exposed through many different routes.
Not only will the bugs be contaminated, but the foliage that bats fly through can transmit the chemicals through their skin. Moreover, water sources can become polluted with pesticides, especially if you live near a conventional agricultural area.
A phenomenon called bioaccumulation explains why bat populations are ultra-sensitive to pesticide exposure. Bioaccumulation is the increasing accumulation of a contaminant over time inside the body of a living organism.
While one pesticide application may not seem like a huge deal, the residues of those chemicals can linger in bat houses and inside their bodies for years to come. A tiny droplet of a pesticide on a moth, mosquito, or even a lettuce plant may not do much harm to you or your pets, but imagine if you were eating thousands of bugs or lettuce leaves per night!
Bats rapidly accumulate toxins, a major reason for their global decline. If a bat is nursing or pregnant, the pesticides can rapidly compound and spread to the baby pups.
We are trying to save bats, not kill them! So keep pesticides out of your garden whenever possible and opt for organic, integrated solutions.
If You Must Spray…
If you absolutely must use a chemical control for an out-of-hand pest problem (we’ve all been there, no judgment!), try to keep the application super localized and choose an organic, specifically targeted spray whenever possible. Broad-spectrum pesticides are the most problematic because they kill EVERYBODY– the “good guys” and the bad ones.
A pest-specific solution like Bt or Bacillus thuringiensis (which is a biopesticide because it’s made from soil bacteria) only targets caterpillars. However, a spray, like pyrethrum, is broad-spectrum. Even though it comes in an organic form (pyrethrin) sourced from chrysanthemums, it kills all bugs it comes into contact with. If you must use a pesticide on your crops, keep it far away from your native plants and flowers.
One more consideration is the chemicals used to treat timber and wood. Most organic growers try to keep treated wood out of their gardens because it risks leaching to your edible plants. Take this another step by opting for natural paints and preservants on your fences, structures, and, of course, your bat houses. The fungicidal preservatives in treated wood can bioaccumulate like pesticides, ultimately harming your local bat friends.
Plant Native Trees and Avoid Excessive Pruning
Bats are flying creatures that enjoy a range of different plant heights and shapes to hide and hunt in. They especially enjoy roosting spots in the foliage of trees or decayed bark. Highly manicured and heavily pruned trees are less appealing to bats because they don’t provide much habitat.
Instead, plant native trees and shrubs and minimally prune them to maintain aesthetics and prevent disease. If you can, keep your manicured hedges in the front yard and reserve the back garden borders for a bit of a wilder habitat structure. The more branches, leaves, and trunks, the better!
These crevices are all great hiding spots for bats. Better yet, if you have a dead or fallen tree that isn’t in the way, leave it there for the bats (and beetles and birds!) to colonize.
Great native tree and shrub species include:
- Oak trees (Quercus spp.)
- Elderberry (Sambucus spp.)
- Dogwood (Cornus spp.)
- Native fruit trees (Prunus spp.)
- Mock orange shrub (Philadelphus virginalis)
Of course, you don’t have to leave your garden edges a total wreck, but you can allow some fallen branches and shredded bark to stay in place. If you have woodpeckers, let them work their magic to create more cavities for bats to roost in!
Plant Night-Blooming Species
Nocturnal mammals are naturally fans of night-blooming plants. The scent of a flower that blooms late in the day or into the night will attract more moths, which bats love to eat. As the flowers open and emit their glorious fragrance into the dark, insects swarm to the nectar, and bats can feast while you sleep!
Some great night-blooming flowers for a captivating moon garden include:
- Angel’s Trumpet (Brugmansia spp.)
- Casa Blanca Lily (Lilium ‘Casa Blanca’)
- Chocolate Daisy (Berlandiera lyrata)
- Devil’s Trumpet (Datura sp.)
- Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis)
- Flowering Tobacco (Nicotiana alata)
- Foamflower (Tiarella spp.)
If possible, aim to stagger the bloom times of several plants throughout the season. For example, foamflowers provide nighttime blooms in the spring and evening primrose blooms throughout summer and fall. Year-round nectar sources for moths and insects also mean year-round food sources for bats.
Minimize Light Pollution
Batman only comes out in the darkness of night, and he isn’t particularly fond of bright lights. This modern folklore rings true for our actual bat friends as well. These nocturnal mammals do not want to be exposed to bright porches, patios, or security lights. They require darkness to regulate their bodily cycles and hunting routines.
Bats hate artificial light but sometimes move toward it because of the nearby insects. This can make bats more vulnerable to predation by owls, raccoons, and hawks.
Excessive light pollution can even be fatal to migratory bats! Research shows that artificial light reduces bats’ abilities to forage food. Artificial lighting can disrupt the natural cycles of bats, causing all sorts of problems, including:
- Delaying their emergence from roosts
- Preventing them from coming out to hunt (because they think it’s still daylight)
- Exposure to predators
- Missing peak insect foraging time (just after dusk)
- Reduced food availability
- Abandoning roost sites
- Expending more energy on travel routes to prey
- In extreme cases, starvation
This one is super simple: turn off your patio lights at night and let the bats work their pest-controlling magic in the dark.
Avoid Disturbing Bats in the Winter
Bats usually enter hibernation in late fall, around the time of your first frost, and don’t emerge until spring. The reduced insect activity means they have no food, and the looming cold can send them migrating south or into hibernation.
They savor the warm, humid environments of caves, mines, or rock crevices to hang out (literally) all winter long. During hibernation, their energy expenditure is reduced by up to 98%, and they persist on only the fat stores accumulated during summer hunting.
While in hibernation, their heart rate drops to a whopping four beats per minute! To put that in perspective, their regular flying heart rate can be over 1,000 beats per minute. These creatures need to conserve their energy during winter, so do everything in your power to avoid disturbing them.
Avoid these activities:
- Getting too close to your bat boxes
- Shaking tree limbs or disturbing roosting areas
- Clearing winter debris or shrubs
- Shining bright lights near bat roosts
- Entering nearby caves or rock structures during winter
If you really love your bats, consider insulating their bat boxes or providing frost-protected alternative roosts in the winter. Many species cannot handle freezing temperatures, so they often migrate south.
Some people find bats hibernating in their garages during winter as they try to escape the cold. Since you probably don’t want bats in your garage or in your home, here are some great nature-friendly alternatives:
- Install a winter-insulated bat box without drafts that can stay over 40°F
- Place large stone structures with crevices around the garden edges
- Add a stack of cinder blocks on the border of your property
- Fallen dead trees or logs
There is no need to put in a major extra effort for bat hibernation, as they’ve evolved to find the perfect spot themselves. The key thing to remember is never to disturb hibernating bats! If you wake or arouse them, it can cause them to exhaust their limited fat storage, and they may starve before spring. Winter garden activity can be deadly for hibernating bats!
Be Aware of White Nose Syndrome
Our final tip is related to education. If you care about bats and want to reap their benefits in your garden, you must understand the disease dangers they face.
The major global killer of bats is a disease called White Nose Syndrome (WNS). Caused by the fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans, this disease infects the muzzle, ears, and wings of bats. It thrives in humid, cold conditions and severely harms bat hibernation.
Bats with WNS often look like their noses are covered in white mildew, but they don’t always have obvious fungal growth symptoms. The key problem with this disease is how it disrupts their hibernation patterns. If a powdery fungus was growing on your nose, you’d probably have a difficult time sleeping. The WNS disease often causes bats to behave strangely in their roosts and caves, causing premature hibernation awakening. If they come out of hibernation in midwinter, there is no food for them to eat, and they are likely to starve.
The best thing you can do to prevent WNS is to always thoroughly clean your shoes and gloves before handling bat boxes. If you hike or explore local caves, never mess with bats, and sanitize your gear and clothing before entering another cave. Avoid purchasing bat guano fertilizer, as people are considered primary spreaders of the fungus, and many guano collectors accidentally spread the pathogen from one cave to another.
If you want to cut down on your pest populations and improve local ecology, attracting bats to your garden is an honorable endeavor that may significantly help dwindling bat populations! Like most of us, their needs are fairly simple:
- Food: Plant native and fragrant species to attract insects and avoid spraying pesticides.
- Shelter: Install bat boxes and leave tall trees and shrubs a bit wild for diverse habitats.
- Water: Add a birdbath, pond, or other water source for bats to drink from.
- Lighting: Avoid artificial nighttime lighting by turning off the porch and security lights.