The sun sets over the ridges of Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains. After fifteen years of slow, dry growth, the spiky blue Agave tequilana will form its first and only flower, a towering twenty-foot column topped with yellow. Fifteen years of production are wagered on this one flowering event. If the bat is late, the plant will die; if the flower is late, the bat will die.
The bat comes. Under the stars she pushes her furry, pollen covered face and long pink tongue into the fragrant, nectar dripping stamens.
Millions of years have helped hone this intimate partnership; a lifetime of energy, wagered precisely for a night of pollination. An improbable marriage, no doubt. At the end of the day, it’s just an old love story: between a succulent desert plant, and a furry little bat.
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At the heart of Mexico’s agave industry a group of farmers, known as Jimadores, sharpen their blades. It is not yet dawn, but fathers and sons are already at work slicing off the spiny leaves and loading their trucks with the massive round stems. From here, the plants will be transported to distilleries, to have their sap extracted and distilled into an ancient spirit known as ‘tequila.’
In recent years global demand for top shelf tequila has seen a meteoric rise. In 2016 Mexico exported 1 billion liters of the fragrant green drink, quadruple the volume of only four years previous. Some estimate that Mexico’s tequila industry is worth over $3 billion, a cornerstone of the nation’s export economy. Though Mexico is home to over 138 species of bats, the entire tequila industry rides on the shoulders of one: Leptonycteris yerbabuena, also known as the Lesser Long Nosed Bat, or… the Tequila Bat.
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I first met Roderigo Medellín at the annual conference of the “North American Pollinator Protection Campaign” (NAPPC) in 2012. He was receiving the highest award given by the coalition — for over twenty years of work as the leading conservationist for Mexico’s millions of bats. His talk that night became the inspiration and the basis for my next graphic novel.
One community of Mexican Free Tailed bats will consume over 20 tons of agricultural insect pests in a single night. As pollinators, seed dispersers, and pest killers, Mexican bats are known as “the farmers of the tropics.” Medellín employs a powerful three-fold approach to conservation biology: Through Education, Landowner Partnerships, and Policy change, his team has managed to restore healthy numbers to hundreds of millions of Mexico’s threatened bats. Of the nation’s 138 species, only 18 remain on the endangered species list.
Medellín loves all bats, but none capture his heart quite like the Tequila Bat. As he spoke of the pregnant females nesting all together in a single cave, a chill ran down my spine. In one chamber, high in the Sonoran plateau, all the females of the species are waiting together to give birth. The survival of the species – quite literally – hangs in the balance.
Every year the female bats will migrate 1500 kilometers south along the Sierra Madre mountains, gorging nightly on agave flowers, as they make their way to another special cave, nestled among the islands of Chamela, 20 miles off the western shore of Mexico.
In the crashing Pacific, a forested mountain rises out of the mist. A boatman eats oysters outside, while Medellín makes his way to the dark interior. The floor is thick with soupy, diarrhea-like bat guano, and the walls are crawling with cockroaches. In minutes his clothing is soaked, as temperatures soar past 110-degrees. But he has found what he is looking for. Above his head, swarms upon swarms of tequila bats copulate in a feverish orgy of mass procreation. Sure enough, separation of the sexes has given rise to these annual ceremonies of mass orgiastic coupling, never before seen by human eyes.
Over the next 30 days, hundreds of thousands of bats will be fertilized above the crawling roaches and soupy pools of guano. And without so much as a kiss to their sires, the now pregnant females will fly north, traveling 100km per night, all the way back to their secret home in the Sonoran badlands, to arrive at last to the birthing cave.
Miraculously, after all the pups are born, the males will know instinctively where to find the tribal roost of their fathers, and embark on a distant journey to a home they’ve never seen.
* * *
Sometimes I am disheartened by films like “Life of Pi,” and “Avatar,” that are filled with fake ecology. Nothing a person can make up will be more intricate and fascinating than life as it presents naturally.
What turns me on as an artist are the questions, the jewels that lie hiding in plain site. I am interested in the mythos that lies hiding in the caves of Mexico. How do newborn males know where to fly when they make their first long trek to the homes of their fathers? When did Tequila Bats choose to live in sexual segregation? And how did they come to form such amazing partnerships with the succulent plants and cacti of the desert?
I am interested in coevolution; the intersection of plant, human, and animal cultures, the rise of complex tribal communities and their ancient partnerships. The ‘Tequila Bat’ is a profound example of a crossover between wildlife and the complex trophic strata of human economies.
Mexico is home to some of the deepest caves in the world, spanning hundreds of miles under the ground, with crystals larger than old growth trees. My graphic novels are about human beings gazing into mysterious dark interiors; from our own interior to the interior of Earth’s bottomless great mysteries.
I want to bring a sense of mysticism to the naked observations of science.
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So keep your eye out for a dusty, lawless border town at the height of Prohibition. Here, tequila is an illicit liquor, and worth a pretty peso.
Deep in a secret cave, widows and former prostitutes band together, to find safety and purpose by distilling agave, while above their heads the female bats nest in silence.
Outside, Vincente, a tequila smuggling ganglord, will stop at nothing to find the cave. The town rattles with jimadores, coyotes, migrantes, and liquor barons. All factions are held at bay, however, by one woman: Known only as La Camarera, she is the bartender, abiding with her five-year old son, a horse-whispering, gun-slinging boy called ‘Nacho.’
If Vincente finds the cave, he will take over the distillery, and try to blast a tunnel under the border, unwittingly destroying the nesting site of the very bats who bring him his bounty.
Will La Camarera be able to save the bats and prevent a proverbial Snake from eating its own tail?
Stay tuned to find out.
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Aaron Birk is an award winning graphic novelist, puppeteer, dancer and choreographer. He began developing an independent press in 2011, dedicated to publishing graphic novels about restoration ecology, ethnobotany, and of course, pollinators. His award-winning graphic novel, The Pollinator’s Corridor, was released in 2012. Aaron Birk is feverishly developing his newest book, The Many Lives of Yin Tsao. His website is currently under construction, but you can find The Pollinator’s Corridor and other lovely creations at www.etsy.com/shop/aaronbirk. If you would like to contact Aaron, or be on his mailing list, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on Roderígo Medellín and the tequila bats, see the 2014 BBC documentary: “Natural World: The Bat Man of Mexico”