Leptonycteris curasoae. Copyright US Fish & Wildlife Service.
Recently, the explosion of agave nectar consumption has dramatically increased demand for the agricultural production of agave crops. Agave nectar is advertised as a safe and nutritious alternative sweetener that can be enjoyed by everyone, especially diabetics, without the potential side-effects suffered from consuming sugar cane, honey, corn syrup, and sugar alcohols. However, agave agriculture is not an ecologically sustainable practice. The biodiversity of agave plants, their native desert ecosystems, and the pollinator bat species that depend on agave for food are all at risk.
It has become widespread knowledge that the world’s pollinators are dwindling. Thanks to the global voices of entomologists (scientists who study insects) and ornithologists (scientists who study birds), public concerns about the precipitous decline in pollinator populations have motivated successful conservation strategies to help protect commonly loved species such as honey bees, Monarch butterflies, and various hummingbirds.
However, the number of plant pollinators whose existence is under threat is, sadly, far greater than what most people realize. One very important group of pollinators, bats, is often overlooked; yet, in many ecosystems bats are primary pollinators and dispersers of seeds for thousands of plants, including plants used and consumed by humans.
Agaves are among the plants that some species of bats pollinate. However, what makes this relationship especially unique is that bats and agaves are reliant upon each other—loss of one will effect dire consequences for the other. So how does the agave nectar industry affect the ecology of bats and of agave? Let’s take a closer look at the biology of agaves and bats in South America.