Sunday, August 14, 2005

More about the Black Witch

View of Black Witch from the side
Photo by N. Wagerik

I can't imagine that you haven't been longing for more information about the Black Witch. Here's an article I dug up from the Sun Herald of Biloxi Mississippi. Wouldn't they be surprised to hear that we had one in Central Park?

The Sun Herald -- Biloxi, Mississippi

Sat, Jul. 16, 2005

Remember Mothra? It was huge... 15,000 tons of ticked off Lepidotpera. It leveled Tokyo, scared any little kid who saw it in a dark movie house and kicked Godzilla's tail until Big G fried it to a crisp with its bad breath, only to have Mothra's kids tie him down with their steel-hard strands of silk.

Mothra was one bad dude, but even it didn't get to use the name mariposa de la muerte (moth of death).

That particular sobriquet goes to the black witch moth. It's had that title since the time of the Aztecs. They believed that, if there was illness in a house and this moth entered, the sick person would die. Its biology had a lot to do with this superstition. Large numbers of black witches would appear in early November, just in time for the feast of the dead.

Couple that with their attraction to the lights in a home and the moth's strong, bat-like flight, and you can see how easy it was to associate this creature with death. Superstitions about this moth can be found wherever it is known. In Jamaica (where it's known as the "duppy bat," "mourning moth" or "sorrow moth"), they share the same myth with the Mexicans concerning death. The Jamaicans also believe that the moth brings bad news to a home. In the Bahamas, it goes by the happier name of "money bat."

It is said that, if the money bat lands on you, you will come into money. In south Texas, people say that, if a black witch lands above your door and stays there for a while, you will win the lottery (a more recent myth, one would think). People in Hawaii believe that the moth is the embodiment of the soul of the recently deceased.

The black witch moth (ascalapha odorata) is one of the largest moths in the insect world and is the largest insect in the Western Hemisphere, with the males reaching a wingspan of 11 cm (5 inches) and the females 17 cm (7 inches). It belongs to the largest family of moths (Noctuidae) with just under 3,000 species in North America. Along with size, the female can be distinguished from the male by the presence of a pale median band (stripe) running through her wings.

Now why would I dedicate this week's column to such a creature? Since late June, Dr. David Held with the extension service in Biloxi has received a number of calls from people about the black witch. Many of the callers have lived along the Coast their entire lives and had never seen one of these beautiful creatures before. I was called to someone's home on Thursday to identify a "huge butterfly."

At first, I couldn't tell what it was. I wasn't able to capture the moth and it flew faster and straighter than any moth I'd ever encountered. Without a specimen to examine, a search of my library was fruitless. Then Held called me, saying that he had a live specimen of an unusual moth. When I got there, I immediately saw that it was the same insect that I'd seen earlier. It was the black witch. Last Saturday in the Sun Herald, there was a question in the Sound Off section regarding a large "black" moth.

The final irony came with further research on the biology and ethology of A. odorata. I found a report of the black witch moth being brought to the U.S. in a hurricane.

In 2003, hundreds of black witch moths were reported within the eye of Hurricane Claudette when it made landfall near Port O'Connor, Texas. No black witches had been seen in Texas prior to the hurricane's arrival.

Immediately after the storm passed through, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of the moths were reported along the central Texas Gulf Coast.

Did they come across the Gulf in the storm? Perhaps Cindy brought them to us this year? What will Dennis bring?

Of course, black witch moths are naturally migratory and are abundant throughout the New World tropics. They travel north, usually from Mexico, and have been spotted as far afield as Canada and Alaska. One report has the black witch being seen along the western coast of Africa. Only one official identification has ever been made of a black witch in Mississippi and it was only one of 11 reports (excluding Florida) of this moth east of the Mississippi River.

Like most moths, they are nocturnal. A moth is just a night-flying butterfly, or, more appropriately since moths outnumber butterflies eight to one, butterflies are day-flying moths.

Since they are active at night, it stands to reason that they rest during the day. Some of the most frequently chosen rest stops are in carports, garages, under eaves and on window screens.

There are even cases where they've been found resting under moving vehicles. During the day, you can approach one quite easily. If you have a camera, you can get some pretty nice photos.

Despite their evil reputation, black witch moths are harmless. They're a beautiful creature dressed in brown and black scales with violet or green hues.

A close look will reveal magnificent patterns on the wings. They're usually around only for a day or two, so if you find one of these creatures visiting your home, don't think of it as a harbinger of death and doom. Think of it as a miracle of survival.

Tim Lockley is a specialist in entomology (the study of insects) and is retired from a 30-year career as a research scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. To have him answer your individual questions, please send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Tim Lockley, c/o The Sun Herald, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi, MS 39535.