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Summer 2006 - Act•ionLine

by Edita Birnkrant & Lee Hall | Summer 2006

The True Story of Agave Nectar

A Sweet Gift of Nature, and the Vegetarian Bats Who Keep It Alive

With its great taste, its liquid consistency, and its healthful properties, agave nectar is a perfect sweetener for any recipe. Readers might know agave as the “century plant,” with its semi-succulent leaves that form rosettes, and its central, flowering stalk. European settlers thought the regal plant bloomed only once in a century, but the plants approach maturity at 10 to 30 years of age. One type, the blue agave, is the plant from which tequila is derived.

Agave plants grow on well-drained, rocky slopes, where they control soil erosion and help to speed up natural restoration of degraded woodlands and grasslands. As these plants mature, they accumulate a great store of sugary nectar. Various species are adapted for pollination by insects, hummingbirds or nectar-eating bats.

In the Sonoran Desert region, where Arizona meets Mexico, agave, and cacti such as organ pipe and saguaro burst into flowers on warm nights in late spring and summer. The flowers may last only a night. But as they open, tens of thousands of nectar bats and their young arrive in time to drink their energy-rich nectar.

Today, this natural drama is endangered by human fear of these gentle mammals, by cattle ranching, and stepped-up border construction along the bats’ migratory route.

A Crucial Relationship

From late October to December, many adult bats are known to congregate and mate inside a cave near Cuernavaca, in central Mexico. Bats give birth to one, possibly two youngsters in the spring. Young bats nurse for about one month and can normally fly by five weeks of age. Mother bats leave their mates in Mexico and fly with their young northward through the desert, following the south-to-north wave of spring-blooming succulent plants. Compact vegetarians, nectar bats have long, slender noses that are perfect for dipping into flowers and extracting the sweet liquid.

Bats move from one plant to the next, cross-pollinating them so that they produce seeds. Mexican long-nosed bats and the similar, lesser long-nosed bats are the main pollinators of several agave species, including agave tequilana—the tequila plant. The relationship between the plants and the nectar bats is so critical that scientists claim the bats and agave co-evolved, and that neither species could survive without the other.

Unlike insect-eating bats, nectar bats derive protein, vitamins and minerals from pollen, which clings to their fur and which they later ingest during grooming. Nectar bats have especially short ears, big eyes, and excellent vision. In contrast to the fluttering of insect-catching bats, the flight of the nectar bats is strong and direct, and like hummingbirds, they hover as they drink.

As the flower stalks of the agaves die by late summer, the bats disappear, following late-blooming agaves southward. By November, they are several hundred miles into Mexico, where they nourish themselves with cacti and a variety of flowers.

Bats In Trouble

During the daylight hours, nectar bats may inhabit cool caves, abandoned mines, tunnels, and old buildings. Just a few sites provide the proper temperature and humidity, and some are on private ranches where the bats are likely to be mistaken for vampire bats and threats to the cattle. Thus, although the bats have legal protections under the Mexican Endangered Species Act, they often get caught up in destructive control practices.

Three of the 34 species of Central American nectar bats cross over the border and spend their summers to its north. Lesser long-nosed bats and Mexican long-tongued bats appear in Arizona. Like birds, moths and bees, they play a key role in sustaining the plant life of the Sonoran Desert. Mexican long-nosed bats appear in southern New Mexico and Texas, and are endangered in both states. For many years they have chosen a cave in Big Bend National Park in Texas. There, they are protected; but their yearly population fluctuates widely, from zero to over 10,000 individuals.

An abandoned mine in Nuevo Leon, Mexico, which had an estimated 10,000 long-nosed bats in 1938, had none in 1983. Another mine in the area had a ceiling covered with newborn bats in 1967; only one bat was found there in 1983. In 1988, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed both long-nosed bat species as endangered.

Bats are highly sensitive to human disturbances in their caves, so maternity colonies and hibernating bats are best avoided. Careful viewers wait outside until the bats emerge for their evening meals. Conservation of the agave plants is just as important. Agave plants are harvested for liquor or the production of sweets just before they bloom, at which point they are removed from the bats’ food supply. This loss can be critical, as a single plant grows for one to three decades and flowers only once.

Official recovery efforts for the nectar bats include planting ten of thousands of agaves along roadways in Northern Mexico. People living in border areas can support the bats by learning about the plants (note that some people are allergic, and in the right gardens these plants can take over), by planting agave plants, and letting them bloom. And as with so many endangered species, avoiding the products of cattle ranching is essential too if bats—and agave plants—are to flourish.

The Benefits of Agave

Agave nectar has a consistency close to honey, but thinner and easily dissolved, something like a combination of maple syrup and honey. It’s high in fructose, or fruit sugar, so it naturally absorbs into the blood sugar at a much slower rate than other sweeteners, making it useful for many diabetics and people who are hypoglycemic. As it is a natural, unprocessed product, it retains vitamins and minerals that are absent from highly processed sweeteners. Lower in calories than sugar, and very low on the glycemic index, agave nectar is will not raise blood sugar levels as will other sweeteners, including honey and maple syrup.

Bill Dollinger, who directs the Washington, D.C. office of Friends of Animals, relies on exercise and agave nectar to avoid diabetes medication. Bill regularly enjoys agave nectar in smoothies and creative desserts such as homemade vegan ice cream. Bill discovered agave nectar through the Dining with Friends cookbook. “I’ve been hooked since the first time I tried it,” says Bill. “It’s absolutely delicious.”

Agave nectar can be used as a regular sweetener in baking, tea, coffee, or iced drinks, or poured on pancakes and waffles. Normally, three quarters of a cup will replace one cup of sugar in a recipe. As it is a liquid, you might need to reduce the liquid content in the recipe as well.

Trying Agave Nectar: Key Lime Pie

Natural food shops and organic mail-order sites offer agave nectar, and it’s perfect in Key Lime Pie, the deliciously cool summer treat. Here’s the recipe from Dining With Friends: The Art of North American Vegan Cuisine, the first cookbook from Friends of Animals. (You can order a copy of the cookbook by calling us at 203.656.1522 or clicking its photo on our Internet site, www.friendofanimals.org.)

This recipe makes a pie to serve 6 to 8 people

Ingredients

1 package (12.3 ounces) Mori-Nu Silken Lite Firm Tofu
8 ounces Tofutti “Better than Cream Cheese”
½ cup fresh lime juice
2 teaspoons grated lime or lemon rind
2 packages Mori-Nu Mates Vanilla Pudding Mix
1 tablespoon agave nectar
One 9-inch Arrowhead Mills brand graham cracker pie shell

Preparation

Drain excess water from tofu. Blend Mori-Nu Silken Lite Firm Tofu with fresh lime juice in a food processor until completely creamy and smooth. Add the rest of the ingredients; blend again into a custard. Pour the custard into the pie shell and chill it for 3 or more hours.

Edita Birnkrant & Lee Hall

Act•ionLine Summer 2006

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