What Bats, Shade and Coffee Have in Common

Whether you’re into an old-fashioned cup of joe or artisan pour-overs made with almond milk and topped with a sprinkle of herbs, there’s no denying coffee has grown into a full-scale art form. Some coffee growers have attempted to keep up with the demand for more coffee by employing growing techniques that aren’t good for the environment. However, a recent study of tropical bats in western India indicates that the best coffee may come from some of the most biodiverse regions of the world.

Bats prefer shaded coffee

A new study conducted by the University of Leeds, UK, found that bats in the Western Ghats of India prefer shaded coffee farms to those exposed to full sun. A biodiversity hotspot, the 1,000-mile stretch that makes up the Western Ghats serves as home to a large percentage of India’s native plant and animal life. Among the wildlife that inhabit the area are Asian elephants, Bengal tigers and various species of bats.

The study investigated the patterns of bats in the Valparai Plateau region of the Western Ghats, an area predominantly used for agricultural purposes. Tea plantations cover about 68 percent of the Valparai while about 11 percent of the area is planted with coffee “grown under a mix of native rainforest shade trees.”

The researchers selected 43 capture sites and built a habitat map of the area to manually document the bats’ behavior. As it turned out, several species preferred the agroforestry coffee plantations to other areas in the region. Agroforestry refers to areas that have a combination of agriculture and natural habitat. The bats also tended to congregate around shaded areas adjacent to tea plantations. However, the researchers were careful to point out that previous studies have shown that tea plantations serve as poorer habitats for bats for several reasons, one of which is the lack of shade.

Roasted coffee beans in a burlap sackBats are natural predators of many flying insects and are essential to farms, vineyards and plantations that strive to be chemical free. According to a release from the US Geological Survey (USGS), “A single little brown bat, which has a body no bigger than an adult’s thumb, can eat 4 to 8 grams (the weight of about a grape or two) of insects each night.” Bats are also reliable indicators of the health of the environment. If bats are hanging out in a coffee plantation, it’s likely to be a healthy place.

Healthy bats, healthy coffee

A multi-university team of researchers that also included experts from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Managua, Nicaragua, and the Migratory Bird Center at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute published a report in BioScience titled “Shade Coffee: Update on a Disappearing Refuge for Biodiversity.”

The report stated, “Shade appears to impart its greatest benefit in coffee bean flavor for plants growing in suboptimal and heat-stressed growing regions, where shade can bring environmental conditions closer to ideal levels.” The authors found that shade positively affects the “ecosystem services in approximately 58 percent of the pollination studies, 60 percent of the pest control studies, 100 percent of the climate regulation studies, and 93 percent of the nutrient cycling studies” reviewed by the team. That’s good news for many coffee growers.

“Healthy and quality go hand in hand,” Brazillian coffee farmer Byron Holcomb told Serious Eats. “Coffee, botanically speaking, is an under-story shrub. It naturally exists under a taller canopy of trees, aka shade.”

Does shaded coffee make for better coffee in the cup? Many growers and self-proclaimed coffee connoisseurs think so. Coffee beans grow more slowly in shaded areas, and they claim it gives the coffee a richer, deeper flavor. We like it because it’s good for the environment. Have you tried shade-grown coffee before?

—Megan Winkler

Megan Winkler is an author, historian, Neurosculpting® meditation coach, certified nutritional consultant and DIY diva. When she’s not writing or teaching a class, Megan can be found in the water, on a yoga mat, learning a new instrument or singing karaoke. Her passion for a healthy mind-body-spirit relationship motivates her to explore all the natural world has to offer.



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