What's Up With That? How the Fates of Tequila and The Lesser Long Nosed Bat Are Intertwined

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Bees get a lot of attention for being crucial to our survival – the most prominent among pollinators, bees are responsible for pollinating a staggering number of flowering plant species, including the majority of our food crops.

Other pollinators receive less attention, but nonetheless play very important roles in maintaining balance within our eco systems; however, there's one in particular who is often reviled.

The Bat!

 

For many, the mere thought of a bat conjures nightmares and sends chills up the spine.  Viewed more as disease vectors than cute and helpful creatures, bats get a reputation they don’t deserve.

Comprising the second largest order of mammal, bats make up about 20% of all classified mammal species.

You’ve got bats who eat fruit, bats who eat insects , some who eat chocolate, and some who actually sing like birds!

Despite what you may have seen in horror movies, only a few species of bats drink blood, so please check your notion that all bats are blood sucking vampires at the door.

Likes bees, bats are important pollinators and seed dispersers.

Many of the more than 1,300 bat species consume vast amounts of insects, including some of the most damaging agricultural pests. Others pollinate many valuable plants, ensuring the production of fruits that support local economies, as well as diverse animal populations. Fruit-eating bats in the tropics disperse seeds that are critical to restoring cleared or damaged rainforests. Even bat droppings (called guano) are valuable as a rich natural fertilizer. Guano is a major natural resource worldwide, and, when mined responsibly with bats in mind, it can provide significant economic benefits for landowners and local communities." (batcon.org)

Bats are considered keystone species for the role they play in maintaining certain desert and tropical ecosystems-  In fact, there are many plants that rely entirely on bats for their survival.

"Consider the great baobab tree of the East African savannah. It is so critical to the survival of so many wild species that it is often called the “African Tree of Life.” Yet it depends almost exclusively on bats for pollination. Without bats, the Tree of Life could die out, threatening one of our planet’s richest ecosystems." (Batcon.org)

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Now that you know how vital bats are to many eco-systems around the world, you may not be surprised to learn that the agave plant, distilled into a most delicious spirit you know as tequila, relies primarily on bats, most notably the Lesser Long-Nosed Bat (AKA the Tequila Bat), its primary pollinator, for survival. unfortunately, the trend toward replacing traditional methods with industrial farming practices put both plant and bat at risk.

 

Agave & Tequila: A Brief History

The rise in tequila popularity over the last couple of decades spurred a demand that  outstripped the pace of supply ; to compensate, industrial agave farming  has been replacing traditional farming methods that, as it turns out, does not bode well for agave or the bats.

Intricately woven into the cultural fabric of Mexico; the cultivation of agave has been important to Mexican's for thousands of years. 

Octli (now referred to as pulque), the predecessor to tequila, was a fermented beverage made from the agave plant that was used for rituals and important ceremonies in Pre-Colombian Central Mexico.  Europeans eventually arrived in Mexico and encountered  agave, distilling mezcal first, and then tequila.  Tequila was first distilled in the city of Tequila, which was founded in the 1600's, in the Mexican state of Jalisco, where you'll find most tequila produced today.

Since then, tequila distilling  developed into a centuries old tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation- typically from father to son. 

Recognizing the cultural and economic importance of  its production, Mexico instituted an internationally recognized denomination of origin status on tequila, and restricts its production to 5 states within Mexico: Jalisco, Nayarit, Guanajuato, Michoacan, and Colima.  Jalisco, the dominant area of tequila production, grows about 80% of the blue agave plant. {You might be familiar with denomination of origin requirements for champagne  - this is the same thing.}

In the time-honored tradition of making Tequila,  Jimadores - the traditional cultivators of blue Weber agave, the plants grown exclusively for tequila production-  tend to their agave field for years before it's ready to harvest - a practice of true dedication and patience, it takes an agave plant about 7-12 years to mature.

The piña, the head of the plant containing all the sugars necessary to make tequila, resembles a pineapple. A skilled Jimadore, knowing exactly when it's ripe for harvest, plucks the piña by hand.  Once its spiny stems are removed it is baked, crushed,  pulped, fermented, then distilled.  The next agave crop was traditionally grown from seed after the plant flowered and was pollinated by the nectar-loving  Lesser Long-Nosed Bats.

 

 The piña

The piña

In 1996, Mexico began exporting tequila to the global market in unprecedented volumes.  As demand increased, farmers felt pressure to speed up their own production. 

With industry pressure building, many tequila producers, in an effort to boost sugar content, cut off the flowers before pollination could occur, forcing the sugars into the piña. This inevitably led to widespread monocropping, growing plants from clonal shoots instead of seed and consequently removing a crucial food source of the Long-Nosed Bats. 

Growing cloned plants has had severe ramifications for the tequila industry. 

Cloned plants lose genetic diversity each time they're planted making them more susceptible to disease, so farmers must continually increase the use of pesticides and herbicides. 

But, to many tequila producers, the lack of bio-diversity was not of immediate concern since cultivating agave from clonal shoots reduces the grow cycle significantly, making it more profitable. Unfortunately, many farmers eventually experienced this problem first hand, when a fungus wiped out entire crops.  This will continue to happen if the industry continues to rely on cloned agave.

How can bats save the day?

  As it has been for thousands of years,  Long Nosed Bats, under the cover of darkness, pollinates the agave plant at night by feeding on its nectar.   In apparent gratitude to the plants that provide them with  nutritious nectar, the bats pollinate while they feed as they spread pollen from flower to flower.

They're co-evolution and unique adaptations to one another is a harmoniously symbiotic relationship that nature intended ; crucial to helping the agave reproduce naturally, the bats also help to create genetic diversity within the agave population, which means stronger, healthier, viable plants.

Healthy plants that grow form seed make for happy bats and good tequila.  Weak, genetically identical plants grown from clones, make for hungry bats and put the tequila industry at risk.  After all, you can't have tequila if you're agave is dead.

Combined with  loss of habitat and food sources due to human encroachment , the long nose bat populations remain at risk.

Happily, a few key activists have made it their mission to promote more traditional and sustainable methods of agave farming, which also help the bats. 

For decades, Dr. Rodrigo Medellín, aptly named Mexico's "Bat Man," has worked tirelessly to protect the Lesser Long-Nosed Bat.  For years he has been tempting  tequila producers with the notion of saving the Lesser Long-Nosed Bat and the tequila industry at the same time by appealing to their bottom line.

By allowing even a small fraction of their agave flower, he would argue, they would be providing a food source for the bats, while also greatly improving the genetic diversity of their crop - making it healthier and more productive. A win-win for both sides.

  He was met with substantial push back until a few producers lost their entire crops to disease. 

  In the last few years, along with the Tequila Interchange Project - a non-profit  group comprised of bartenders, scientists, educators, and tequila enthusiasts  advocating for sustainable and traditional practices in the industries of agave distilled spirits- Dr. Medellín has helped some tequila producers become more bat-friendly.  A few producers have allowed 5% of their agave plants in designated fields to flower.  And in a classic "if you build it, they will come" scenario, the bats have returned to those fields, feeding and pollinating as they were meant to.

How to Buy Bat Friendly ( or bat safe ) Tequila

Anyone looking to support tequila companies who allow some of their agave to flower should look for the bat-friendly hologram, as seen here on a bottle of Tequila Ocho.

In order for brands to obtain the label, it must be verified that in the 5% of agaves left to bloom, bats effectively pollinate the plants, seeds are produced, and that these seeds are genetically diverse.

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So the next time you sip on a margarita, do so with bat-friendly tequila, raise your glasses, and cheers to the ones who made it all possible: the bats!