Bats in the Belfry: Bats in fact and fiction

Long-Eared and Daubenton's Bats, 1892The bats have left the bell tower
The victims have been bled
Red velvet lines the black box

Bela Lugosi’s dead…

Bauhaus‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ (1979)

Well, I’m afraid I’ve got some news for you, Bauhaus. The bats are unlikely to have left the bell tower, no matter which classic cult horror movie legend has just passed into the great beyond, because bats don’t often tend to roost in belfries. According to the Bat Conservation Trust (pdf), bats do roost in churches – it’s just they seem to find bell towers far too noisy, dusty and draughty for their purposes (and who can blame them). Sorry to ruin the illusion!

Honestly, it’s true, bats really aren’t as scary as all that, despite the continued attempts of Halloween tradition to try and convince us otherwise. I’m very fond of the little critters (they’re seriously cute – no, they really are!), and I find their lives fascinating. Which is why, this Halloween, I’ll be looking at bats in much more detail, and trying to separate the facts from the fiction.

The basic bat facts are these. Bats are the only true flying mammals. Rather weirdly, their wings are similar in structure to the bones in a human hand. Most bats eat insects, navigating and finding their prey in the dark using echolocation, which works in a similar way to sonar. Bats are found the world over, and make up about 20% of all mammals across the globe (over a quarter here in the UK).

Eighteen different species of bat (most of them tiny – the Pipistrelle bat is only a little larger than a £1 coin) are found in Britain, with seventeen of Bat skeleton, 1894these breeding here. By the time Halloween rolls round each year, British bats will have finished mating and are preparing for hibernation by building up their fat reserves and seeking out a cosy spot to spend the winter.

Interestingly, bats are more important than you might think, particularly when it comes to our environment. Some types of bat play a crucial role in

pollinating or spreading the seeds of certain plants, and insect-eating bats (such as the species we have here in the UK) can act as a speedily-winged form of pest control, while simultaneously enjoying their in-flight insect dinner as they go. In a bat context, then, it seems fast food can be (indirectly) good for us…

The Bat, 1792In the UK, some types of bats are vital ‘indicator species’ for biodiversity. Any changes in the populations of these species can indicate connected changes in the health of other species (such as the insects they eat) and in the health of the wider environment too, since bats are particularly sensitive to issues surrounding the way we use land, in both urban and rural contexts.

But many species of bats are threatened – worldwide, up to 25% of these run the risk of extinction, and at least 12 different species are sadly already ex-bats. In Britain, bat numbers have been in decline for decades due to habitat loss, the destruction of roosting sites as a result of building development, changes in land use, wildlife crime, predation, and numerous other issues which can have an impact on their populations. As a result, all our bat species (and their roosts) are protected by law.

However, there are useful things we can do to help encourage and attract bats in rural as well as in urban areas (I’ve even seen bats in central London on several occasions). If you have a garden or an allotment, you can make it bat-friendly by planting various types of trees, shrubs, flowering plants and vegetables that attract the bat’s favourite food – insects. Ponds and compost heaps are also helpful in this respect. You could even put up a bat box (or two) as a des res for any discerning batty visitors!

Between me and the moonlight flitted a great bat, coming and going in great whirling circles. Once or twice it came quite close, but was, I suppose, frightened at seeing me, and flitted away across the harbour towards the abbey.

Bram Stoker –  from Chapter 8 of ‘Dracula’ (1897)

Bats have been part of the myths and folklore of many different cultures for millennia. In the UK, there are all sorts of regional tales relating to the Bats, 1806bat, many of which were recorded in print during the 19th and first half of the 20th century – but were almost certainly much, much older than that. Some folk endowed the bat with the power to influence the weather for the better, while others saw bats (or the killing of one) as unlucky. Still others associated bats with the dark power of witches, or described them as a fairy or some kind of ghostly spirit in disguise.

Elsewhere in the world, bats occasionally appear in Native American folklore, usually as a kind of ‘trickster’-type character, and are often associated with death, darkness and the underworld in many of the Indian cultures of Mexico and Central America. The ancient Maya civilization, for example, believed in several bat gods and goddesses who were associated with death and lived in the underworld.

However, it is in South America where we find something of the origins of modern fictional bats and their undying (pun intended) association with the vampire. The notorious and somewhat misunderstood ‘vampire’ bat is common in this part of the world, which has resulted in tales of scary bat-monsters in indigenous folklore. Stories of this blood-drinking bat travelled to Europe with the return of early explorers in the 15th and 16th centuries, and soon became entangled in existing legends.

Vampire Bat, 1866

There is much evidence of these particular bats, and bats in general, already being associated in western art and literature with the mythical vampire (although the vampire bat itself was probably so named quite some time after tales of its existence first reached Europe), long before Bram Stoker had even started writing his classic tale of horror – the imagery and mythology of the bat fitted in very well with the ethos of the early 19th century Gothic novel, for example.

But by creating the then new twist of a vampire actually turning into a bat, Stoker cemented the link between the bat and the undead vampire in the popular mind – and it’s never really left. You just have to look at the countless versions of Dracula which have graced the stage and screen since the turn of the 20th century – and the even more numerous vampire tales since inspired by Stoker’s original – to see that bats still hold a spooky fascination for us…

Happy Halloween!

Bats in a row, 1896

Click on any of the images used in this post for a larger version and more information. These images are from the British Library’s Flickr page, which is full of all sorts of fascinating goodies – but be warned, you will lose several hours of your life exploring their collection!

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