In European folklore, moths were regarded as witches. Not a big stretch. Witches are creatures of the night. Moths are creatures of the night. Witches can transform themselves…. Moths can transform themselves (metamorphosis)…. Witches fly. Moths fly. Witches have long noses. Moths have long noses.
–John Himmelman, in the book, Discovering Moths
All hail the Black Witch Moth. It might be a harbinger of death–or a sign that your future includes a lucky lottery ticket.
The intriguing Black Witch Moth, sometimes known as “the bat moth” resembles a bat in size and shape and with a a seven-inch wingspan is the largest moth in North America. They are common in these parts.
”People often come across it by causing it to fly up and around them,” said entomologist Mike Quinn, who has been tracking the migration of Ascalapha odorata for his Texasento.net website. “There’s a real startle factor.”
Reports of large, bat-like moths surprising people, frequently as they return home and are unlocking their front door, are not uncommon. We spooked several Black Witch Moths on a recent visit to the Santa Ana Wildlife refuge in the Rio Grande Valley, where they roosted under wooden benches and in the eaves of the breezeway near the entrance to the visitor center. When these big boys flush, they get your attention.
Females have a white, sometimes iridescent stripe across their wings with wings open. Males exhibit the plain, grey, brown mottled pattern commonly associated with moths, but with small dark eyespots on each forewing. Black Witch Moth caterpillars eat legumes, and favor acacia and mesquite. They are perfectly harmless, not an agricultural pest, and have no teeth or stingers.
The folklore surrounding Black Witch Moth, like the moth itself, is all over the map. In Mexico they are known as “mariposa de la muerte,” the butterfly of death. Some believe if a Black Witch Moth enters the home of someone who is ill, the person will die.
A variation on the folk wisdom suggests that the moth must travel to each corner of the house for death to occur. The Mayans called the Black Witch x-mahani-nail, which means “the habit of entering buildings.” This moth apparently has a long history of inviting itself inside.
Interestingly, in the Carribean, the Black Witch Moth is known as the “Money Moth” and if it visits your home, you are likely to come into cash. Here in South Texas, some believe if a Black Witch Moth roosts over your door, you will win the lottery.
Native to Central America and Mexico, the Black Witch starts migrating north in late spring. “The migration has been going on since June,” said Quinn. Because of our timely rains and climate change, several Black Witch Moth “records” have been set, meaning the moths have appeared further north earlier in the year than ever.
“This year may end up as the best year yet for Black Witch Moth (BWM) records,” wrote Quinn to the University of Houston Texas Butterfly Listserv, which includes more than 250 novice and professional lepidopterists. Quinn has recorded more than 500 records so far, including a significant record in Maine, in mid June.
The Black Witches’ seven-inch wingspan allows them to cover a lot of ground quickly. Entomologists note that Monarch butterflies start crossing the Rio Grande and take two months to reach Canada. Black Witches start migrating in June and have been recorded
reaching Maine by June 9 and Manitoba, Canada, by June 28. That’s a rapid pace for a moth. Scientists wonder why the Black Witch Moth migrates so far north with no southbound return? Hmm.
In the movie Silence of the Lambs, serial killer Hannibal Lechter inserted cocoons of Black Witch Mothsinto the mouths of his victims as a weird gesture of transformation. The moth on the movie poster is a Death’s Head Hawk Moth, but the actual cocoon was that of a Black Witch.
If you’d like to have one roost above your door to inspire a winning lottery ticket, you might try setting out a cocktail of fermented fruit or stale beer. Black Witch Moths also like tree sap. Good luck!Like what you’re reading? Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the righthand navigation bar of this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam.