Saving Bats, One Bottle of Tequila at a Time

Some of the best tequila in the world is made from the blue agave plant. Blue agave is not a cactus, but like cactus, it thrives in the hot climates that don’t experience a great deal of rainfall. The blue agave flowers only once during its lifetime. When it’s ready to bloom, a long stem appears in the center of the plant’s rosette and several tubular blooms adorn the stem. After pollination, these blooms turn into fruit. The plant dies after bearing the fruit, though suckers will grow out of the original stem. Each of these suckers can develop into a brand-new plant, allowing the cycle to begin all over again.

The part of the plant that’s important to tequila connoisseurs is the blue agave’s piña, or heart. At harvest time, the piña weighs anywhere from 80-300 pounds. The size of the piña isn’t nearly as important as how much sugar it contains. Older piñas have a higher sugar level than young ones, which is why only older plants are harvested. It can take anywhere from six to ten years before the plant’s ready for harvesting. Contemporary farming practices have had farmers harvesting the blue agave before it blooms, since that’s when the sugar content is at the highest concentration. After harvesting the blue agave, they plant entirely new plants that were started elsewhere.

One liter of blue agave tequila requires 15 pounds of piña.

Fertilizing the blue agave plant is complicated. The plant’s spine is deadly to some species and the shape of the tuber flowers makes it difficult for most pollinating animals to get to the nectar found deep within the blossom. Enter the long-nosed bat.

The long-nosed bat is perfectly adapted to retrieve the plants nectar and pollinate the blue agave at the same time, a process that’s vital for the continued production of blue agave. The problem is that the long-nosed bat population is declining.

When he learned about the falling long-nosed bat population, conservationist Rodrigo Medellín stepped in and started working with local farmers and exploring ways of saving the bat so they could continue to produce the tequila that’s so important to their region.

Prior to Medellin’s involvement, most blue agave farmers harvested the plants prior to the plant blooming. The reason for this was because blooming decreased the plant’s sugar content. For years, this system worked, but then crops were hit by a disease that made it difficult for farmers to find replacement plants. This, as well as Medillin’s urging, was enough to convince the farmers to set aside a portion of their crop to flower, allowing the bats to feed and creating a sustainable farming situation.

In addition to convincing the farmers to let some of the plants fully mature, Medillin also took steps to preserve some of the caves that the long-nosed bats roost in.

Medellin worked with others to create the Tequila Interchange Project, a nonprofit organization that’s made up of blue agave farmers, tequila makers, scientists, distributers, and anyone else concerned with the fate of the long-nosed bats that explores how they can continue to create a bat-friendly environment while also producing great-tasting tequila. Their efforts have led to the production of “bat-friendly” tequila. The bat-friendly tequila is distributed by La Alteña, Don Mateo, Tequila Cascahuin, and Siete Leguas.

© Jess Schira
excerpt from 60 Beautiful Bat Facts 



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