Saturday, November 1, 2008

How Echolocation Brings You Better Coffee

It's all about the bats. First, there are ongoing studies in Mexico to determine how to raise coffee without pesticides. The researchers used to think that birds played a crucial role in keeping coffee-eating insects away from crops, but it turns out that a much larger share of the responsibility goes to bats.

They studied four groups of coffee plants. The control group of plants, uncovered day and night, was protected from insects by both bats and birds. A second group of plants was only covered during the day, protected by the bats at night, and a third group was covered at night, protected only by the birds during the day. The final group of plants was covered day and night, and was most severely attacked by pests.

It turns out that plants that did not have the benefit of the bats' protection had 84% more assorted pests than the coffee plants in their care. That's when they started paying more attention to how the bats were protecting the plants. Think spiders. Actually, think sandworms of the sky.

You may be familiar with the way you can see bats hunting for insects, zipping through the air after mosquitos and other flying pests like aerial dogfighters from World War I. Bats can eat half their body weight in just one night that way. However, the researchers watching the coffee plants learned about a new way for the bats to hunt.

The bats by the coffee plants would hide in the trees, and use their sonar to listen for insects going after the plants. Like Frank Herbert's sandworms, sensitive to the shifting of desert sands, the bats can use their acute hearing to pick up the sounds of insects moving, eating, or chirping. Then they strike. It's actually kind of awesome.

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The header image is adapted from a photo taken by Bill McChesney and used under a creative commons license.
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