Put Your Garden Plants In To Bat

Out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed a black shape as it flashed past my window.  It was my local common pipistrelle, out on its nightly round of favourite hunting areas, my garden included.

If you love your garden you should also love bats, as they are most certainly on the list of gardeners’ friends when it comes to eating insect pests.  All 10 species of our country’s bets are exclusively insect diners and will have visited a garden near you, from the smallest window box to the grounds of the grandest stately home.

Gardens have become an increasingly important habitat to our wildlife in recent decades, as you will be aware if you read the Sunday supplements and watch gardening programmes or Springwatch on TV.  Hedgehogs snuffling for slugs on the lawn, butterflies on the buddleia and blue tits on the peanuts are all well-established highlights of a wildlife gardener’s experiences, but where do our beleaguered bats feature in all of this positive conservation?

You’ll probably be surprised to learn that they are doing quite well.  With all these efforts directed towards birds and bumblebees, our bats are helped by default: almost an incidental spin-off.  But their prospects could be made much better if we focused on what bats need in the garden.

Basic necessities

Like all creatures, bats need three basic necessities to thrive – food, water and a place to shelter, all of which can be provided by thoughtful gardeners.

An increasing number of gardeners are using fewer chemicals to control those problem pest species, which bodes well for bats that rely on a constant supply of insects.  Aphids, midges, moths and flies are all on the menu of bats such as the common pipistrelle and brown long-eared.

Pips are usually the first out for a meal about 20 minutes after sunset and like to feed in the shelter of buildings or trees.  They fly rapidly in a direct line, changing direction abruptly to swoop on the first of their nightly quota of 3,000 midges.  A long-eared bat, on the other hand, tends to emerge from its roost when the last rays of the sunset are all but spent and flutters slowly around bushes and plants, ready to pluck a moth from a leaf.

It therefore follows that if your garden can attract a wider selection and greater number of insects, bats will be attracted to it in the first place and linger longer once they have found it.

By having a diverse selection of flowering plants of different colours, petal shapes and flowering times you will pull in a wider variety of insects over the whole of spring and summer.  Field poppy, honesty, ice plant, mallow, Michaelmas and ox-eye daisies, red campion and valerian, sweet William and wallflower are all good border plants.  It’s worth noting that single-flowered varieties are much more nectar-rich than doubles.

Scent

Also remember that another vital component to the flower border is scent.  This is what you want if you are to attract night-flying insects, as bats feed intermittently throughout the night, not just at dawn and dusk.  Consider planting strong-scented herbs like chives, borage, lemon balm, marjoram and mint, but don’t forget the night-scented species.  A good selection of the latter might include evening primrose, night-scented stock, white jasmine, honeysuckle, sweet rocket and night-scented catchfly.

Many less aromatic native species can also be important components of your batty garden: ivy, dog rose and bramble are all worth considering if you have the space.

Flying insects often rely on grasslands in their larval stage, so you could consider leaving part of your lawn uncut or even plant a wildflower-rich meadow area.

Planting all these wonderful species is very laudable, but if they are blasted by strong winds it will have a negative effect on the insects and hence the attractiveness to bats.  The need for sheltered areas created by bushes, hedges and trees is therefore very important.  In small gardens plant small trees that can be coppiced now and again to provide fresh leaves for insect larvae and shelter.  Try hazel, hawthorn or goat willow, for instance.

Large trees in gardens create excellent sheltered feeding areas for bats, and also provide roosting opportunities.  Trees that are old with splits, loose bark or holes and hollows in them are especially important.  Please take time out to inspect such places before removing dead limbs or feeling hollow trees just in case there are bats present.

If bats are present, it’s vital that you seek advice from Natural England as soon as possible.  On younger trees, roosting boxes can simulate natural features but you need to be careful where you put them.  To be successful in attracting bats to boxes they need to be sited at least 10 feet high, be clear of branches, and catch the sun for part of the day.

Ponds and wet areas also attract other kinds of insects that spend the early stages of their life cycle in the water itself.  By creating such features you would add greatly to the attractiveness of your garden to bats for feeding and drinking purposes.

Finally on a summer’s evening when you’ve done everything else, select a seat outdoors, put your feet up and watch the bats swoop for the midges swarming above your head!