Bats, Agave & Tequila | Test your Knowledge
Test your knowledge about bats, agaves and tequila. Have fun learning about the amazing stories found at the Garden and in our beloved Sonoran Desert. You will never look at a margarita the same way again.
Here in the Sonoran Desert, summer evenings are a time to leave air conditioned retreats and enjoy the starry evenings. Temperatures drop as the sun fades and the desert floor and sky begin to buzz and click with activity.
Fact or Fiction: Can you hear a bat?
Fact: Click, click, click is a faint noise you can hear at dusk, broadcasted through a bat detector. Drawing your attention further up into the sky, you can observe the first bats that appear at sunset—the Western -pipistrelles. The big brown bats emerge later and are twice the size of the pipistrelles. These two are the most common bats that you will see, and they consume thousands of tons of insects (including moths) a night.
Fact or Fiction: Bats are not important to the Sonoran Desert.
Fiction: Arizona is rich in bat diversity, hosting 28 species of bats in the region. Many are important pollinators like the lesser-long nosed bats, which drink nectar from the flowers of many agaves, saguaros and organ pipe cactus. Few people realize that these animals are important pollinators.
Fact or Fiction: Bats eat many different types of food.
Fact: Bats have a variety of feeding strategies: some survive on flower nectar or fruit, hunt flying insects and fish for small minnows. Others catch small rodents, frogs, lizards, birds and even other bats. And yes, there are vampire bats that feed on blood of other animals. Many people have seen bat horror movies and myths abound, yet the truth is that bats are effective predators of nocturnal insects, pollinate flowers and disperse seed.
Fact or Fiction: Nectar-feeding bats are the main pollinator of blue agave
Fact: Two nectar-feeding bats found in the Sonoran Desert region are the main pollinators of the blue agave that is cultivated in heart of Mexico. In the Sonoran Desert, Agave palmeri is one species pollinated by bats. However, not all agaves in the Sonoran Desert are bat-pollinated, as some agaves are by birds, bees and other insects.
Fact or Fiction: Mexico has more species of agaves than any other country.
Fact: To understand this remarkable connection, begin with the diversity of agaves and flower structure. There are more than 230 species of agave, with Mexico having more than any other country, with about 180 species. Agaves are diverse not only in number but also in shape, color, leaf and flower characteristics. Even bat-pollinated flowers differ from those pollinated by bees.
Fact or Fiction: Some agave flowers smell sweet and musky.
Fact: Agave stalks are either branched or not, and they bear flowers that produce nectar at night. Bats are attracted to the floral fragrance of bat-pollinated agaves—the aroma being musky and sweet. Bat-pollinated agave flowers are also sturdy, have a well-developed cup that holds nectar and are often maroon. Bee-pollinated flowers are fragile, have a shallow cup and are yellow. Agave plants will generally not set seed unless it is pollinated.
Fact or Fiction: Bats that drink nectar look different from bats that eat insects.
Fact: The two kinds of nectar feeding bats that occur in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert are the lesser long-nosed and Mexican long-tongued. In both, the tongue and muzzle are elongate, which is an adaptation for feeding on the nectar that accumulates in the interior of the flowers. Short ears and the small, triangular nose leaf indicate these bats rely less on echolocation and probably more on their eyesight and sense of smell to locate the flowers. As the bats feed, with their snouts deep inside the flowers, their fur gets coated with pollen grains. When they fly to another plant in search of more nectar, they transfer the pollen to new flowers, assisting in cross-fertilization of the plants. Agave nectar and pollen are the main food for nectar-feeding bats. Thus, both the plants and the bats benefit from this mutualistic relationship.
Fact or Fiction: Bats are a vital part of tequila production.
Fact: Most everyone is familiar with tequila, but few are aware of the famous beverage’s recently recognized pollination connection. Until recently, farmers grew the blue azul agave plants from one clone and did not allow any of their agaves to be cross-pollinated by bats. They would harvest the vast majority of plants before they flowered. Farmers today are beginning to allow some of their agaves to flower in order to provide food for bats and allow cross-pollination to occur. Cross-pollination of agaves will ensure a more diverse gene pool in their farms, which will make some of the plants more resilient to certain pests and diseases. Many crops in the U.S. are monocultures like tequila farms, such as corn and tobacco.
Fact or Fiction: There is a town in Mexico called Tequila.
Fact: There is a town in Jalisco, Mexico called Tequila. This small town is famous for large scale production of blue agaves in producing tequila. Tequila is produced mainly in the state of Jalisco and to a more limited extent in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit and Tamaulipas. Tequila is a significant economic crop in southern Mexico, and U.S. sales alone consume more than 10 million gallons of tequila a year.
Fact or Fiction: Some tequila bottles include a worm inside.
Fiction: What you have is not a bottle of Tequila. The worm is found only in certain bottles of mezcal and is nothing more than a marketing gimmick. The worm, by the way, is actually an insect larva, usually either of a moth, butterfly or weevil that is associated with the living agave plant.
Fact or Fiction: Tequila is produced from the flower of the agave.
Fiction: The plant’s core with the leaves removed is called a piña (Spanish word for pineapple), and this is the heart of the agave that is cooked, and from which complex carbohydrates are broken down into simple sugars and tequila is made. Agaves must be harvested before the flowering stalk begins to grow, lest the plant invests its sugar in flowering.
Fact or Fiction: The first producer of tequila was Jose Cuervo.
Fact: The history of tequila is fascinating. The first producer of tequila was José Cuervo who began his operation in 1795. He obtained the land from the King of Spain in 1758, before Mexico became an independent republic. All Jose Cuervo tequila is still made in the town of Tequila and has been for over 250 years.
Fact or Fiction: There is a bat friendly tequila.
True: For more than a century, the industrial practices used for the production of tequila have eliminated almost all the genetic diversity of the tequila agaves. This lowers the ability of the crop to survive a disease outbreak or adapt to changes in climate. Today, for the first time ever, academics, producers, distillers, bottlers, marketers and bartenders are joining forces to produce bat friendly tequila and mezcal and to defend the agave, its pollinators and Mexico’s national drinks. By allowing 5% of tequila and mezcal agave plants to flower (about 222 plants per hectare), growers extend an invitation to those responsible for improving their genetic diversity—the bats. The final result is an original, high-quality Bat Friendly Tequila and Mezcal, along with more food for the bats.
To learn more about this important work, go to tequilainterchangeproject.org.
A Toast to Agaves & Bats
The next time you sip a margarita, imagine a bat sipping nectar on a moonlit night in the rolling hills of Tequila, and pause for a moment to reflect on your mutual interests in sustaining these natural relationships.