Five Texas Moths for Enjoying Year-Round Moth Week

National Moth Week is behind us.  We really enjoyed our Malt, Hops and Moths event at Alamo Brewery last weekend–but the fun doesn’t have to stop there.  The celebration of those night flying cousins of butterflies, often cast as ugly step sisters in the world of lepidoptery, can take place ANY night of the week.  Just wait for darkness, turn on a light, sit back and enjoy the show.

Here’s five moths that we have in Central and South Texas right now.  Open your eyes, look, and you will see them.

The Sphinx Moth

Known in its larval form as the much loathed Tomato or Tobacco Horn Worm, this attractive dusk flier also is often called the “hummingbird moth.”   Gardeners despise the Manduca sexta’s consumption of their tomato plants, but I suggest setting aside a few seedlings for these voracious caterpillars, who strike a sphinx-like pose when poked, arching their neck and staring blankly at who’s bothering them.

Sphinx Moth caterpillar on Jimsonweed

Tobacco hornworms on Jimsonweed.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

As moths, these impressive striped flyers move during daylight hours, hovering like helicopters to nectar and provide great observation opportunities.  They are members of the Sphingidae family.

Sphinx Moth

C’mon, admit it: she’s adorable. Sphinx Moth, photo courtesy Colorado State University extension office

Black Witch Moth

Large, bat like and harmless, the intriguing Ascalapha odorata, sometimes known as “the bat moth” resembles a bat in size and shape, and with its seven-inch wingspan is the largest moth in North America. They are common in these parts.

Black Witch Moth

Black Witch Moth photographed by Karen Herrmann in Kansas.

They often hang out near doors and flush when approached, causing quite a startle for the unsuspecting.  But remember, they’re completely harmless.   Much folklore surrounds their appearance.  Throughout the hemisphere, legend has them bringing good luck, a lottery win, or a death in the family, depending on the part of the world and the circumstances of their appearance.

Black Witch Moth caterpillar

Black Witch Moth caterpillar. Photo via wikipedia.org

In the movie Silence of the Lambs, serial killer Hannibal Lechter inserted cocoons of Black Witch Moths into 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.

Polyphemus Moth

The Polyphemus Moth, Antheraea polyphemus, sports prominent, owl-like eye spots and  a six-inch wingspan.  The moth is dramatic.  We had a hatch of these guys at the ranch one night and several fluttered against the porch spotlights.  The sound of their wings hitting the the floodlight was so loud, you would have thought birds or bats had paid a visit.

Polyphemus moth

Polyphemus moth. Check out those eyespots!   Photo by Monika Maeckle

The Polyphemus gets its name from the Greek myth of the Cyclops Polyphemus (cyclops means one-eyed giant). They’re not unusual and live everywhere in the U.S. and Canada.   That they host on a variety of trees–oaks, birches, elms, willows and others–perhaps explains their widespread provenance.

Like many moths, these members of the Saturnid, or silk moth family, spend most of their life as caterpillars, eating up to 86,000 times their body weight at emergence in just two months.  Once they become a moth, however, their vestigial mouth parts make eating impossible.  Basically, their mouths don’t work any more.   Their sole focus as a moth is to reproduce.

Polyphemus moth caterpillar

Handsome boy! Polyphemus moth on oak leaves. Photo by our friend Mona Miller

Polyphemus change dramatically during the caterpillar cycle and in their final instar become a fantastic three- or four-inch green caterpillar with silver and/or red spots on the side.   See the photo above by our friend Mona Milller.

Ailanthus Webworm Moth

The first time I spotted one of these handsome creatures at the ranch I thought it was beetle.  They tuck their wings in a tidy fashion, leading you to believe they are of a different genre, but no–they are moths.

Ailianthus Webworm Moth

This guy fooled me. Thought he was a beetle, but no, it’s the Ailianthus Webworm Moth. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Members of the ermine moth family, the small, striped Atteva aua caterpillars build communal nests in the Ailanthus tree by pulling leaves together with webbing and spinning cocoons inside the webs.    They are native to Central America, but migrate north in the summer and host on the Ailanthus tree, sometimes called the Tree of Paradise.   Both the AWM and the Ailanthus tree are introduced species that have adapted.  Non native, but gorgeous creatures.

Ailanthus webworm moth caterpillars

Ailanthus Webworm Moth caterpillars are an introduced species, just like the tree they host on. Photo via www.urbanwildlife.net

Luna Moth

This beauty, Actius luna, is one of the most dramatic moths that take to the night.   The lime green beauties host on various hardwoods and are apparently found in our area, although I have never seen one.

Luna Moth

One of the most dramatic moths, the long-tailed glamourous Luna Moth. Photo bu Mike McCafferty, via Wikipedia

In their caterpillar stage, Luna Moths are equally impressive, with chubby green body sections punctuated by prominent gold-brown-orange pegs. Like many moths, they only live a week as adults.  For that period, they do not eat (they have no mouth parts).  Their singular goal is to reproduce.

Luna moth caterpillar

Luna moth caterpillar, reared and photographed by Shawn Hanrahan. Photo via Wikipedia

Good luck hunting moths.  Please let us know what you find.

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Moth Night San Antonio: Lotsa MOTH-ers, Fewer Moths, $1K for Urban Natural Areas

MOTH-ers and “mo-fos” (that is, moth followers) showed up by the hundreds Saturday night for Malt, Hops, and Moths:  Moth Night at the Alamo Brewery.  More than 250 attended the gathering, which ranked as the first official National Moth Week event ever staged in San Antonio.  The occasion put the Alamo City on the Moth Week map with 373 similar events staged in 38 countries around the world July 18 – 26.

mothnightsheet

Lots of MOTH-ers, not so many moths at the moth sheet at Alamo Brewery for the first official Moth Night San Antonio in honor of National Moth Week. Photo by Scott Ball, Rivard Report

While several interesting moth species made appearances, including the Texas Grey Moth,  moths, in all their biodiversity, largely avoided the venue. Extreme heat, high winds, and possibly too much urban light may have deterred their participation.

But no matter. Turns out MOTH-ers really like their beer.

Alamo Brewery had a banner night, ringing up substantial beer sales–mostly in a special edition Moth Night brew, Sphinx Moth Amber Ale. Partial proceeds of those sales, more than $1,000, will go to Friends of San Antonio Natural Areas, FoSANA, formerly known as the Friends of Friedrich Wilderness Park. The nonprofit organization serves as a steward and advocate for local urban wildlife spaces and promotes education and science to increase public understanding of nature.

Texas Gray Moth, Glenoides texanaria, was one of the few moths to join the party at Moth Night at the Alamo Brewery. We still had fun. Photo by Delmar Cain

Texas Gray Moth, Glenoides texanaria, was one of the few moths to join the party at Moth Night at the Alamo Brewery. We still had fun. Photo by Delmar Cain

“The great turnout affirms the San Antonio community’s desire to disengage from their screens and check out what our urban nature has to offer,” said Daniel Large, a board member of FoSANA and co-organizer of the event.  “We look forward to more events in the future.”

Eugene Simor, founder of Alamo Beer Company, agreed.  “It was one of our more unusual and successful events, and well worth the effort,” he said.

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Three moth sheets were set up with mercury vapor and black lights in the Brewery’s massive yard as curious onlookers gaped from the Hayes Street Bridge, which remained completely dark this steamy summer evening by prior arrangement with the City of San Antonio.  Volunteers helped kids mix up moth bait–ripe bananas, Alamo beer, yeast and molasses. Kids and moth docents smeared the concoction on logs and trees in an attempt to attract the night flyers. Moths didn’t take much of the bait, but no one seemed to mind. A breezy summer evening, like-minded nature lovers, and cold brews with friends–who would complain?

spreading moth bait

Moth fan spreads moth bait on tree log to help lure moths to Alamo Brewery. Photo by Scott Ball, Rivard Report

“Moth night was so rad!  Thanks for putting this event on,” said Clarissa Perez, community relations coordinator for the San Antonio River Authority, via Facebook.

Delmar Cain, a retired attorney-turned-moth-enthusiast who assembled one of two educational slide shows that ran during the event, served as chief moth docent, explaining the life cycle of the fascinating insects.

“Beer looks to be a good magnet for people, and for moths,” said Cain, taking in the crowd Saturday night.

Delmar Cain

Moth docent Delmar Cain, answered questions and brought moth specimens to share with the crowd.   Photo by Scott Ball, Rivard Report

Armed with specimens  of moths he captured in the field and brought for viewing and explanation, Cain patiently answered questions from the crowd.  Also:  Cain showed off the dramatic Eastern Bloodsucking Cone-nose kissing bug.   The odd insect, a type of assassin bug, attacks and voraciously feeds on insects, small mammals and even humans occasionally with piercing-sucking mouthparts.   The bugs can carry the debilitating Chagas disease.   “If you see this guy, eliminate him,” said Cain, displaying the brown creature secured safely inside a glass vial.  One observer labeled the insect a “delightfully vile beast.”

It's Moth Night, ya'll.  More than 250 folks showed up at Alamo Brewery for San Antonio's first official National Moth Week event.

It’s Moth Night, y’all. More than 250 folks showed up at Alamo Brewery for San Antonio’s first official National Moth Week event.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Guests bought Jimsonweed plants (host plant to the  Sphinx Moth, national spokesmoth for  National Moth Week this year), examined a Tomato hornworm, handled Sphinx moth cocoons, and played with a woolly bear caterpillar, which morphs into the dramatic Leopard moth.

All in all, a lovely outing for a hot summer night.  When’s the next Moth Night, you ask?  Stay tuned for details.

Special thanks to our Malt, Hops and Moths Night sponsors:   Alamo Brewery, The Arsenal Group, City of San Antonio, Friends of San Antonio Natural AreasTexas Butterfly Ranch, Trinity University, and the Rivard Report.    And:  special thanks to Jeremy Karney and Genevieve Lillian Gaudet for developing our logo and ads, respectively.  GRACIAS!

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Q&A: Moth Week Spokesmoth Manduca Sexta Says Moths Get No Respect

Confession:  the Texas Butterfly Ranch is guilty of species-ism.

Of the 230 posts published here in the last five years, only 10 have been about moths.   Yet moths occupy a huge majority of the order of Lepidoptera–numbering an estimated 150,000-500,000 species vs. butterflies’ measly 20,000.

Sphinx moth

Manduca sexta says moths have suffered at the wings of butterflies with color. Photo via IronChris via Wikipedia Commons

Moth followers, or “Moth-ers” as they’re known, would say that butterflies are just day flying moths, yet we almost always refer to moths as the “night flying butterflies.”

In a salute to National Moth Week July 18 – 26, we attempt to rectify this wrong with a focus on moths.  A full week of moth festivities organized by our insect loving pals at the Friends of the Malt-Hops-Moths-greenlogoEast Brunswick Environmental Commission will be here soon, including our own San Antonio National Moth Week event.

Malt, Hops and Moths: Moth Night at the Alamo Brewery takes place July 23, 9 PM – Midnight. The FREE, family friendly  evening of exploring night-time nature will join hundreds of Moth Week events celebrated around the world. San Antonio is on the Moth Week map and makes one small flight toward species equality. Want to join us? Please let us know so we can plan properly with an RSVP.

This year’s featured moth family is the Sphingidae, which includes sphinx and/or hawkmoths.

Loathed by gardeners in its caterpillar stage, the Manduca quinquemaculata, or tomato hornworm, has eight V-shaped marks on each side and a signature horn on the rear.  Manduca sexta, the tobacco hornworm, closely resembles its tomato preferring cousin, but shows seven diagonal white lines on its sides and a curved horn. Both caterpillars turn into large moths with four- to six-inch wingspans in colors ranging from brown and gold to pink and grey.   They often are mistaken for small hummingbirds when they fly during the day and  hover helicopter-style to nectar on flowers, which is why they are also called Hummingbird or Hawk Moths.

tomato hornowrm caterpillar

Tomato hornworm morphs into the National Moth Week Spokesmoth, the Sphinx moth. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The hornworm caterpillars get their name from the signature horns that grace their backsides. The “Sphinx Moth” moniker results from the distinct pose the caterpillar assumes when disturbed. Upon the mildest poke, the creature rears its head in a thoughtful stance, hoisting the upper third of its body in a sphinx-like posture.

1280px-Great_Sphinx_of_Giza_-_20080716a

Which came first, the SPhinx or the Sphinx Moth? The latter. Photo via Wikipedia

Sphinx moths have charms all their own, as noted in this exclusive interview with Manduca sexta, spokesmoth for National Moth Week.

Question: Why do butterflies get all the attention?

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Manduca sexta

Manduca sexta: Lepidoptera of color definitely get all the glory. We are often grey or brown and perceived as drab or uninteresting.  We’re dismissively referred to as LBTs–“little brown things.”

Yet many of us are as colorful and glorious as our day flying cousins.  Only one family of moths consumes clothing, yet people brand us as pests even though most of us contribute necessary ecosystem services like pollination and serve as food to other creatures.  Perhaps because moths mostly fly at night…it might raise some shackles in folks.  They think we’re creepy.  I happen to be a dusk flyer.

Question:  Tell us about that–your reputation as a “hawkmoth.”

Manduca sexta: We Sphingidae are rightly proud of our flight capabilities.  We’ve been clocked at 30 miles per hour and have the ability to hover, which requires enormous energy. Our flight behavior is so exemplary that aeronautics companies study us to get ideas for making drones and other micro-aerial devices (MAVs). Yep, when it comes to scooting through the sky in the dark, nobody beats us.

Moth MAV

MAV by Phototronics inspired by moths and other insects. Photo via National Moth Week Blog

Question: What’s a typical night like for a hawkmoth?

Manduca sexta: It’s about finding food.   And us hawkmoths don’t visit just any flower for a nectar sip.  We’re very particular, drawn to white, yellow or super pale pink flowers.  Hawkmoth-pollinated flowers also are heavily scented.   Our sense of smell is excellent and allows us to find these flowers in total darkness, from up to a mile or more away. Jimsonweed is one of my favorites.

One study gave us some well-deserved credit as the primary pollinators of Agave plants in the Arizona desert–so I guess you could say that thanks to us, tequila happens.

It’s not all flitting around in the dark for some quick nectar high, though. The night flying is riddled with danger. At any moment we could be snatched up by a bat or nighthawk, run crosswise with a speeding truck, or find our way into a screened porch with no chance for escape. It’s a dangerous world out there, but we do our best.

Sphinx Moth on Datura, photo by Betsy Betros, via BugGuide.net

This Sphinx moth smells the heavy scent of  Datura and is diving in with its long proboscis. photo by Betsy Betros, via BugGuide.net

Question:  Why should human beings care about moths?

That is just so Homo sapiens of you.   Why is every living creature cast in the context of human beings?   Other species occupy this planet.

If we must cast our existence in such a context, I’ll reiterate that we perform important ecosystem services–at no charge, mind you–pollinating various plants as mentioned above.   We’re also are a primary source of protein for bats, birds and other creatures, providing a high nutrition pop with very little fat or carbs.  Were it not for us moths, other creatures would suffer a food shortage and perhaps perish.  And if bats and birds ceased to exist, you’d have an overpopulation of mosquitoes and other pests that sting, bite and cause disease.   So…as you can see, it’s not as simple as what’s in it for me?  It’s our role in the greater food chain that matters.

Question:  Anything else you want us to know?

Manduca sexta: I’d just like to clarify something.  That movie, The Silence of the Lambs, with Jodi Foster and Anthony Hopkins as the cannibalistic serial killer, Hannibal Lecter?  That did a real number on moths’  reputation.

You think moths are creepy? That crazy “Hannibal the Cannibal” puts hawkmoth cocoons in his victims mouths as some sort of sick gesture of transformation. And they have us flying around in a weird, dark basement evoking a strange terror.

The thriller, Silence of the Lambs, has contributed to moths' creepy reputation.

Quid pro quo, Clarice:The thriller, Silence of the Lambs, has contributed to moths’ creepy reputation.

It’s true that a bunch of tobacco hornworm moths used in the film were treated like celebrities by the filmmakers.  They flew us first class to the set in a fancy carrier and had special living quarters with controlled humidity and heat.  It was pretty sweet.

But just to be clear, on the movie poster, the moth on Jodi Foster’s mouth had a skeleton skull photoshopped onto a sphinx moth.  That was a pretty realistic portrayal of the Death’s Head hawkmoth–which is generally only found in Africa and southern Europe.

So, to be clear, we had NOTHING to do with Hannibal the Cannibal.  That was fiction.

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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.  You can also read our stuff on the Rivard Report.

Join us! Malt, Hops and Moths: Moth Night at the Alamo Brewery July 23

San Antonio will gain a greater understanding of moths July 23 when the Alamo Brewery stages a family friendly evening of nighttime nature that will shine a much-needed spotlight on the beauty, importance and diversity of moths, the underappreciated siblings of butterflies.

Malt-Hops-Moths-greenlogo

JOIN US. July 23, 2015 at the Alamo Brewery in downtown San Antoino.

Malt, Hops, and Moths will take place at the downtown brewhouse, 9PM – Midnight, Thursday, July 23, 2015, and will benefit the Friends of San Antonio Natural Areas. Admission is FREE.

The fun, educational event, sponsored by this website, the Alamo Brewery, Trinity University, the Rivard Report, and the Arsenal Group, coincides with the fourth annual National Moth Week 2015 July 18-26, a global citizen-science project that celebrates the beauty, incredible biodiversity and ecological importance of moths.

The three-hour nature night will occur outside the Brewery near the Hayes Street Bridge where mercury vapor lamp and black light moth magnets will be set up to attract moths and other insects for close-up viewing, inspection and recording.

mothselfiechrisrobinson

Trinity University biology graduate Chris Robinson shows off his moth selfie. Join us for Malt, Hops and Moths on July 23 at the Alamo Brewery in San Antonio to snap yours. –Photo by Monika Maeckle

Would-be “moth-ers,” that is, folks interested in observing and enjoying the spectacle, can use their cell phones to snap “moth selfies” and help record data of observed species, then load them up to iNaturalist, a crowdsourced species identification cellphone app. Organizers plan to have moth host plants and caterpillars on hand, edible insect snacks, a slideshow and more.

FSANAcolorlogoAlamo Brewery will serve a special editionSphinx Moth Amber Ale at the event in honor of National Moth
Week’s featured moth
this year, members of the Sphingidae family–hawk and sphinx moths.  The beer will be used to make “moth bait” and participants will be invited to mix up the stinky stew—Alamo beer, overripe, mashed bananas, yeast and molasses–and smear it on nearby trees and structures with a paintbrush. (Sound like fun? Gloves provided.) The concoction is irresistible to moths.

“Moth night is a great way to get kids and adults engaged in nature,” said Daniel Large, a habitat conservation plan coordinator for the Edwards Aquifer Authority who co-organized the event in collaboration with me and Trinity biology associate professor Dr. Kelly Lyons.

Sphinx Moth on Datura, photo by Betsy Betros, via BugGuide.net

Ladies and gentlemen….the featured moth for National Moth Week 2015….the Sphinx Moth. Here, on Datura, photo by Betsy Betros, via BugGuide.net

We encourage everyone to join the fun at the Brewery next month, but remind you that anyone can stage a moth night in your own backyard, the park or the neighborhood.

“It’s amazing what you can find once you start looking–even if it’s just from the comfort of your own home” said Large. “With moths and many other insects, just turn on a porch light at night and see what happens,” he said.

Dr. Lyons’ Trinity biology students will assist citizen scientists in identifying moth species and uploading the data to iNaturalist. “Crowdsourced data collection at events like Moth Night help us understand the greater ecosystem,” said Dr. Lyons.

nmwlogoPlus, it’s just fun to hang out in the dark, enjoy a beer and see what shows up.

While most people view moths as pests, only one family of the hundreds of thousands of species eats clothes. As one who has been partial to publicity hogging butterflies for many years, I was surprised to learn that moths outnumber butterfly species 10:1.   Scientists believe that somewhere between 160,000-500,000 species of moths exist.

Moths indisputably get a bad rap.  Not only beautiful and interesting, they play an important role in the food chain, serving as pollinators and food for pollinators and other creatures.

Bees pollinate the malt that makes our beer, but moths help make tequila happen, for example.  They serve as a primary protein for bats, which pollinate the Agave cactus from which tequila is distilled.   And the “worm” in the Mezcal bottle is actually the caterpillar of the Tequila Giant Skipper, Aegiale hesperiaris, a species that lies taxonomically between a moth and a butterfly.

San Antonio’s Malt, Hops and Moths Night joins hundreds of similar National Moth Week events around the world. Last year, more than 400 events took place in 50 states and 42 countries. To see the event roster, check out the map on the National Moth Week webpage, and please join us on July 23!

Special thanks to our Malt, Hops and Moths Night sponsors:   Alamo Brewery, The Arsenal Group, City of San Antonio, Friends of San Antonio Natural Areas, Texas Butterfly Ranch, Trinity University, and the Rivard Report.    And:  special thanks to Jeremy Karney of the MonksToolbox for developing our logo.  GRACIAS!

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Four Fine Texas Moths for National Moth Week

Happy National Moth Week!   The celebration of the night flying cousins of butterflies, often cast as ugly step sisters in the world of lepidoptery, began only three years ago and takes place this week, July 15 – 27.

Wish I had planned better and organized an event.  Anybody?

Maybe next year. Dang work always gets in the way of the fun stuff.  Anyone interested in helping me organize a Moth Night in San Antonio, whereby we would set up a black light with a sheet and await/celebrate the arrival of moths, please leave a comment below.  Perhaps we can make something happen.

Moth light night trap

Anybody want to do this? I’m in.  We just need a mercury vapor light. Photo via www.exploratorium.edu

Meanwhile, you can still keep watch for some of the most common and amazing moths to be found in our area.  I had no idea how fascinating moths can be until I was seduced by butterflies. Turns out moths outnumber butterfly species 15 to one.  Really. That’s what happens….you start paying attention, and next thing you know, you’re raising caterpillars in the kitchen.

Here’s four moths that we have in Central and South Texas right now.  Open your eyes, look, and you will see them.

The Sphinx Moth

Known in its larval form as the much loathed Tomato or Tobacco Horn Worm, this attractive dusk flier also is often called the “hummingbird moth.”   Gardeners despise the Manduca sexta’s consumption of their tomato plants, but I suggest setting aside a few seedlings for these voracious caterpillars, who strike a sphinx-like pose when poked, arching their neck and staring blankly at who’s bothering them.

Sphinx Moth caterpillar on Jimsonweed

Tobacco hornworms on Jimsonweed.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

As moths, these impressive striped flyers move during daylight hours, hovering like helicopters to nectar and provide great observation opportunities.  They are members of the Sphinginae family.

Sphinx Moth

C’mon, admit it: she’s adorable. Sphinx Moth, photo courtesy Colorado State University extension office

Black Witch Moth

Large, bat like and harmless, the intriguing Ascalapha odorata, sometimes known as “the bat moth” resembles a bat in size and shape, and with its seven-inch wingspan is the largest moth in North America. They are common in these parts.

Black Witch Moth

Black Witch Moth photographed by Karen Herrmann in Kansas.

They often hang out near doors and flush when approached, causing quite a startle for the unsuspecting.  But remember, they’re completely harmless.   Much folklore surrounds their appearance.  Throughout the hemisphere, legend has them bringing good luck, a lottery win, or a death in the family, depending on the part of the world and the circumstances of their appearance.

Black Witch Moth caterpillar

Black Witch Moth caterpillar. Photo via wikipedia.org

In the movie Silence of the Lambs, serial killer Hannibal Lechter inserted cocoons of Black Witch Moths into 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.

Polyphemus Moth

The Polyphemus Moth, Antheraea polyphemus, sports prominent, owl-like eye spots and  a six-inch wingspan.  The moth is dramatic.  We had a hatch of these guys at the ranch one night and several fluttered against the porch spotlights.  The sound of their wings hitting the the floodlight was so loud, you would have thought birds or bats had paid a visit.

Polyphemus moth

Polyphemus moth. Check out those eyespots!   Photo by Monika Maeckle

The Polyphemus gets its name from the Greek myth of the Cyclops Polyphemus (cyclops means one-eyed giant). They’re not unusual and live everywhere in the U.S. and Canada.   That they host on a variety of trees–oaks, birches, elms, willows and others–perhaps explains their widespread provenance.

Like many moths, these members of the Saturnid, or silk moth family, spend most of their life as caterpillars, eating up to 86,000 times their body weight at emergence in just two months.  Once they become a moth, however, their vestigial mouth parts make eating impossible.  Basically, their mouths don’t work any more.   Their sole focus as a moth is to reproduce.

Polyphemus moth caterpillar

Handsome boy! Polyphemus moth on oak leaves. Photo by our friend Mona Miller

Polyphemus change dramatically during the caterpillar cycle and in their final instar become a fantastic three- or four-inch green caterpillar with silver and/or red spots on the side.   See the photo above by our friend Mona Milller.

Ailanthus Webworm Moth

The first time I spotted one of these handsome creatures at the ranch I thought it was beetle.  They tuck their wings in a tidy fashion, leading you to believe they are of a different genre, but no–they are moths.

Ailianthus Webworm Moth

This guy fooled me. Thought he was a beetle, but no, it’s the Ailianthus Webworm Moth. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Members of the ermine moth family, the small, striped Atteva aua caterpillars build communal nests in the Ailanthus tree by pulling leaves together with webbing and spinning cocoons inside the webs.    They are native to Central America, but migrate north in the summer and host on the Ailanthus tree, sometimes called the Tree of Paradise.   Both the AWM and the Ailanthus tree are introduced species that have adapted.  Non native, but gorgeous creatures.

Ailanthus webworm moth caterpillars

Ailanthus Webworm Moth caterpillars are an introduced species, just like the tree they host on. Photo via www.urbanwildlife.net

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Genista Moth Caterpillars Return to Llano River Mountain Laurels

Last May I posted a much-read report of an extreme outbreak of Genista Moth larvae on two treasured Mountain Laurel trees my family had transplanted to our Llano River ranch 10 years ago.

The post, “Squish remorse” — Genista Larvae on Mountain Laurels Create Caterpillar Quandary,” started like this:

“It was an odd day, digging up wild parsley in search of chubby, Eastern Swallowtail caterpillars for fostering and fun at home, followed by hours of trying to figure out a humane and responsible way to kill hundreds–no, thousands–of unwelcome critters decimating several precious Mountain Laurels.”

 

The Genista Broom moth caterpillar, Uresiphita reversals, occupied almost every leaf of the tree.   Sometimes called the Sophora worm, these moth larvae relish the toxic leaves of our native Texas Mountain Laurels, Sophora secundiflora.

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Genista moth caterpillars returned to a different set of Mountain Laurels this spring. Photo by Monika Maeckle

A year ago, the voracious caterpillars were decimating the evergreen native, which produces a Kool-Aid perfumed bloom that typically signals the first days of spring.

At the time, I was concerned the ubiquitous caterpillars would kill the tree or prune it to a shadow of its former self.   Several sources assured me not to worry—it was all part of the life cycle.

Twelve months later, I’m happy to report that the Mountain Laurels in question have rebounded magnificently. See the photo below.

Mountain Laurel

Genista moth caterpillars decimated this Mountain Laurel last year, but the tree bounced back nicely in 2014. Photo by Monika Maeckle

That’s the good news.

The bad news: the Genistas have  moved on to devour another Mountain Laurel further up the hill from their 2013 feast.   As Sandra Schwinn commented at the time:

“I have dealt with these for the last couple of years…. If there were just a few of them, it wouldn’t be so bad. Be prepared for a second onslaught, as that’s been my experience. In fact, last year, I battled them from spring into fall.”

Sounds about right.   While it’s reassuring that the caterpillar onslaught doesn’t appear to kill the plant, it does rob us of the next year’s purple blooms since Mountain Laurel flowers only occur on second year growth.

Genista Moth caterpillars

Genista Moth larvae returned to different Mountain Laurels this year on the Llano River. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Given the apparent heartiness of the Mountain Laurel I will resist the urge to squish the Genistas, letting nature take its course and ceding their role in the food web as fodder for lizards, wasps and others.

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2013’s Top Posts: Moths, Monarch Decline, How to Raise Butterflies, Move a Chrysalis

We close out 2013 as a banner year at the Texas Butterfly Ranch.  2013 marked our third year covering the life cycle of butterflies, moths and the plants that sustain them.  We published 35 posts this year and drew 107,000+ page views–up from 42,000 in 2012.   Thanks to all for reading.

The decline of the Monarch butterfly migration led butterfly news this year, with a post detailing the steady downward spiral topping the list.  Interestingly, posts about how-to-raise butterflies and what species of milkweed to plant also ranked highly–apparent responses to the severity of pollinator decline? Hmm.

Below, you’ll find the posts you enjoyed most in 2013.

Monarch butterflies in decline

Dire predictions became reality in November when news reports suggested that  only three million Monarch butterflies would make it to Mexico this year.  For the first time in recorded history, Monarch butterflies did not arrive at their ancestral roosts in Michoacán en masse by Day of the Dead, November 2.  Scientists were concerned at this historic tardy turn.

Monarch graph Journey North

Only three million Monarchs made it to Mexico and may occupy only 1.25 acres of forest this year, a record low. Graph via Journey North

The 2012 season, acknowledged as the worst year for the insects population wise, counted 60 million Monarchs.  In prime years, they numbered 450 million.  Looks like 2013 will hold the dubious distinction of the year the migration came unraveled.

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, relayed a similar prognosis earlier in the season when he told the International Butterfly Breeders conference that the butterflies would likely occupy only 1.25 acres of forest in the mountainous roosting grounds west of Mexico City.  At their height, the creatures roosted in 50+ acres of forest.

Chip Taylor and Kathy Marshburn

Dr. Chip Taylor visits with IBBA president Kathy Marshburn at the organization’s combined conference with the Association for Butterflies in November. Photo by Monika Maeckle

How unspeakably sad that the entire population of Monarch butterflies east of the Rocky Mountains could fit into a space smaller than a strip shopping center.

People are doing what they can to help Monarchs on the home front

Our two-part feature on How to Raise Monarch Butterflies at Home ranked a top post  with readers.   In April I wrote that I had collected Monarch eggs from milkweed in my  front yard. Subsequent posts detailed step-by-step how easy it is to raise Monarch butterflies at home.

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed

Monarch butterfly caterpillar on milkweed, its host plant. You can raise them at home–it’s easy! Photo by Monika Maeckle

We started with the eggs, watching them hatch and become tiny caterpillars.  We fueled their growth with fresh, pesticide-free milkweed, then followed their whole lifecycle to the chrysalis stage and finally their eclosure to a butterfly. You can do it, too.  Read the two-part series here.

Moths:  Underappreciated, extremely interesting

While we call ourselves the Texas Butterfly Ranch, we try not to be speciesists.  That is, we try not to give too much attention to one species over another—although that’s pretty much impossible given America’s love affair with the Monarch butterfly.

We agree that Monarchs and other butterflies seem to get all the press at the expense of their less celebrated, night flying cousins.  That said, we try to spread the love around.

In fact, two of our top posts in 2013 didn’t even discuss butterflies.  Instead, they profiled two of the more interesting moths you’ll likely find in your gardens.

Sphinx Moth on Datura, photo by Betsy Betros, via BugGuide.net

Sphinx Moth on Datura, photo by Betsy Betros, via BugGuide.net

This post on tomato hornworms ran back in June 2012, yet climbed easily into one of the top reads of 2013—18 months after it posted in the height of summer.   Perhaps because so little is written about moths?  Or maybe thanks to National Moth Week, a relatively new celebration launched by the Friends of the East Brunswick Environmental Commission (Friends of EBEC), a group of citizen scientists that focus on the fascinating flyers every summer.  Mark your calendar for National Moth Week 2014, July 19 – 27, as a week that will celebrate their existence.

The truth is that even butterfly loving vegetable gardeners often squish the tomato and tobacco hornworms, which feast voraciously on tomato, pepper and potato plants and other members of the Solanaceae family.  We encourage ceding a few fruits or entire plants to these dramatic caterpillars, which later morph into beautiful Sphinx Moths.

Sphinx Moth caterpillar on Jimsonweed

Look for Tobacco Hornworms on Jimsonweed and your tomato plants.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Then, our story on the mysterious, myth-laden Black Witch Moth: Large, Common, Bat-like, and Harmless drew lots of interest.

This “bat moth” resembles a bat in size and shape and its seven-inch wingspan ranks it as the largest moth in North America.  Black Witch Moths are common in Central and South Texas and frequently rest under the eaves of houses near doors, often startling folks as they arrive home.   Generous rains seem to have offered favorable conditions for them this year, as we had many questions about them.

Black WItch Moth Huatulco

Black Witch Moth seen in a kitchen on a full moon night.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

The folklore surrounding these harmless nightflyers runs the gamut.  They can be a harbinger of death–or a sign that your future includes a winning lottery ticket.

Butterfly 911:  lack of host plant results in milkweed emergency

This post on a “milkweed emergency” drew plenty of views and the most comments of any post ever on the Texas Butterfly Ranch  (76).

The quandary of too many caterpillars and no milkweed to feed them continues to find readers, especially at the end of the Monarch butterfly season when nurseries and gardens have exhausted their host plant supplies.

Monarch on Milkweed

It takes a lot of milkweed to grow a Monarch butterfly. The caterpillars consume 200x their birth weight in milkweed leaves. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Every fall, we receive frantic emails, Facebook posts and even phone calls from people who have plenty of Monarch caterpillars, but no milkweed on hand.   A milkweed shortage pretty much defines the plight of Monarch butterflies throughout the migration landscape.

Frequently, folks will run out to a nursery and buy a fresh pot of milkweed, unaware that plants have been sprayed with systemic pesticides, which can last six months.   This post details how to avoid the sad experience of finding all your caterpillars dead from toxic poisoning the morning after you’ve served them polluted host plant.

How to Move a Monarch Chrysalis

If you can get your caterpillars to the chrysalis stage, they often will build their jade jewel in an inconvenient location.   A post that draws steady interest year after year answers the frequently asked question:  Is Relocating a Monarch Chrysalis OK?

Monarch chrysalis and butterfly

The answer:  yes, you may relocate the creatures once they make their chrysalis.

The post details a few tips on how to handle a Monarch chrysalis with care and do’s and don’ts for successfully relocating them.

Got Milkweed?  Updated guide to Texas milkweeds

Finally, rounding out our top posts of 2013, an updated Milkweed Guide: Choose Best Plants for Monarch Butterflies.    Given the news of the decline of the Monarch butterfly migration, the call to plant milkweed and other wildflowers to make sure pollinators—not just Monarchs—continue their life cycle becomes urgent.

Antelope horns

Asclepias asperula, Antelope Horns Milkweed on Texas Hill Country roadside in April 2011, photo by Monika Maeckle

We get many questions  in our emailbox regarding which species are best for San Antonio and Austin yards, ranches, or even a vacant lots that beg for a butterfly garden.   Our Milkweed Guide aims to point you in the right direction.

We’ve added a few links below to other favorite posts that we believe merit your time.   We hope they pique your interest.  Let us know by leaving a comment.

To all our readers, mariposistas, MOTH-ers, butterfly lovers near and far–cheers to a healthy, happy 2014.   Plant lots of wildflowers, host and pollinator plants in 2014.   Stay away from pollutants and pesticides. Enjoy and tend your gardens and wildscapes.

See you outside.

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Yo soy Mariposista! Butterfly Advocates Unite as Lepsters, MOTH-ers and Butterflyers

On a recent trip to Huatulco, Mexico, I was invited by the local guiding association to talk about the hobby of “butterflying.”  My Spanish is pretty decent since my husband and I lived in Costa Rica and El Salvador for years and now reside in San Antonio, a city closely tied to Mexico and populated largely by those who speak Spanish.  We embrace the language and enjoy speaking it.

Costa Rican butterflies

Too bad I wasn’t a mariposista when I lived in Costa Rica in the 80s. Could have seen all these beauties. Photo via nature.berkeley.edu

But I was stumped when attempting to come up with a word in Spanish that describes butterfly watcher.  “What is the word for birder?” I asked our guide Cornelio Ramos Gabriel.

Pajarero,” he said, suggesting the literal translation of “one who birds.”  When I consulted my iTranslate phone app, it cited “observadores de aves,” that is, observer of birds.

When I asked Cornelio the Spanish word for one who butterflies, he paused.

Mariposero?”  he asked, since mariposa is the Spanish word for butterfly.

We agreed that we could use the word “mariposero” for one who “butterflies”–but somehow it didn’t seem to catch what I meant.

As mentioned above, my husband and I lived in Central America during the Sandinista revolution and the Contra war–he, covering the wars of the region for Newsweek magazine and me as a magazine and newspaper freelancer.  I came to know the Spanish suffix “ista” as an add-on to any word that meant one who advocates for a certain belief.

Sandinistas, inspired by the failed revolution of Augusto César Sandino in the 1920s, overthrew the Somoza dynasty in 1979.  Panistas, on the other hand, pushed for the conservative, pro-business agenda of the National Action Party of Mexico while their counterparts, PRIistas, held power for nearly a century as Mexico’s ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party.  In Argentina, Peronistas keep alive the progressive socialism of former president Juan Peron.  An anarquista, or anarchist, of course, would oppose all government.  And don’t forget, I was a periodista, or one who writes for a newspaper.

Given my fascination with languages and penchant for advocating for butterflies, it came to me:   Yo soy mariposista.

That word suggests a certain activist bent–just like Sandinista, Peronista, PANista, PRIista, all of which are political terms that connote a movement or advocacy of a point of view.

By such a definition, I am, indeed, a mariposista.    Yo soy mariposista, one who advocates for butterflies.

Por qué las Mariposas?

Por qué las Mariposas? Por qué no?                                                         –Photo by Monika Maeckle

Back here in the U.S.,  “butterflying,” that is, the act or hobby of watching butterflies for fun, is in its infancy.  Many argue that butterflying is where birding was in the 60s.  More on that in a future post.

Just a little bit of research suggests that in English “butterflying” as a verb was likely first used in 1776.  According to our friend Nigel Venters in Cordoba province of Argentina, “the earliest reference is a short statement by Moses Harris, in the world’s first ever, well illustrated, and detailed book on butterflies in the late 18th century called “The Aurelian, or Natural History of English Insects; Namely Moths and Butterflies, Together with the Plants on Which They Feed.”   Yeah, really.  That’s the title of the book!

More recently, Robert Michael Pyle used the term “butterflying” frequently in his 1987 book “Handbook for Butterfly Watching.”

Apparently regional variations exist in the words used to describe those who watch butterflies, according to Monica Miller of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.  Monica responded to my query posted on the DPLEX list, a butterfly listserv of hundreds of mariposistas, butterflyers and others.

“…I can confuse matters with the terminology we use up here in Pennsylvania,”  Monica  wrote via email.  “Since we include moths in our adventures, we refer to the collective targets as ‘leps’ and when we ‘lepsters’ go out looking we go ‘lepping’ as in  ‘Do you want to go lepping on Saturday?’ It’s more descriptive of what many of us do since a lot of us both butterfly and moth (both nouns and verbs there…)”

And speaking of moths, those who favor night flying lepidoptera point out that “MOTH-ers” are folks who prefer the observation of moths while “lepsters” go both ways, enjoying both the colorful beauties that grace our gardens during the day and the more mysterious creatures that pollinate plants at night.

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Blue Morphos and a Butterfly Bonanza in Huatulco, Mexico

I made myself a rule several years ago to stop running blindly after butterflies with my net.   Too often I had done so, often in the Llano River, chasing Monarchs in the fall when they return to Mexico.   Sometimes I would trip on a rock, slip on wet limestone and narrowly avert catastrophe in the middle of nowhere with the closest hospital hours away.

Blue Morpho

Blue Morpho netted on the trail near Huatulco in Oaxaca, Mexico.     Photo by Monika Maeckle

But the sight of a Blue Morpho, one of the most beautiful butterflies on the planet, languidly tracing a dirt road from the tropical canopy of the Sierra Madre mountains in Mexico last week caused me to break my own rule.  Running full speed while looking up, I chased the butterfly for about 500 feet before tripping on a fallen branch.  Luckily I caught myself.  We were many miles from medical assistance.

I gave my net to Cornelio Ramos Gabriel, our able nature guide.   Within a half hour, Cornelio had nabbed a Morpho peleides, whose wingspan can reach eight inches and whose blue wing flashes have made the species a target of collectors in addition to its natural predators. We photographed the beauty and released her.  Cornelio told me that the dreamy flyer is relatively common in these parts, along with its dramatic sister, the White Morpho.  We saw several examples of both on our day trip to Finca Monte Carlo, a lovely coffee plantation in the Sierra Madre.

Welcome to Casa Tulco!  Not a bad place to compare trail notes after butterflying in Huatulco.  Photo by Veronica Prida

Welcome to CasaTulco! Not a bad place to compare trail notes after a day of butterflying in Huatulco. Photo by Veronica Prida

My five-day butterfly trip was the scheme of dear friend Veronica Prida, who with her husband Omar Rodriguez are the hosts of CasaTulco, a fabulous nature retreat set in the ecofriendly tourist destination of Huatulco, Mexico.  The resort lies in Oaxaca, about 300 miles south of Acapulco on the Pacific coast.

Veronica and I have been butterfly buddies for years and she was kind enough to assemble a butterfly trip that included me, butterfly guide book author Kim Garwood, and birder/photographer Susan Hoffert.  Cornelio and Mateo Merlin Sanchez worked hard as our guides, catering to our every whim as we made CasaTulco our base.  In the evenings, we lolled by the pool, recounted our adventures, and researched unknown finds as the entire CasaTulco staff attended our need for margaritas, chilaquiles and wi-fi.  It was a magnificent trip.

Superb Cycadian chrysalises

Superb Cycadian chrysalises nestled on the leaf of a cycad palm at Finca Monte Carlo near Huatulco. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Our Blue Morpho outing took us on a two-hour spine-jangling, four-wheel drive jaunt up a dirt road that wound through tropical mountain forests and tracked a vibrant stream.   We saw 117 species of butterflies in just 48 hours.  Kim seemed nonplussed each time Susan or I pointed out a new find, patiently identifying its common and Latin names, her capacity for recall a stunning reminder of my own frequent forgetfulness.

“That’s a Fine Line Hairstreak,” said Kim upon one of my inquiries. “He likes roadside edges.”  Is that unusual?   “No.”

After a fruitful stop at a small cascada, or waterfall, where various Swallowtails and Sulphurs puddled and danced above the rushing water and an Owl butterfly hid in the thick underbrush, we arrived at Finca Monte Carlo.  Our gracious host, Efren Ricardez Scherenberg, escorted us directly to a mature cycad palm where a cluster of Superb Cycadian butterflies had just pupated.  The brown and black chrysalises, called capullos in Spanish, looked like designer chocolates from a high-end confectionary.
Superb Cycadian butterflies at Finca Monte Carlo, Oaxaca, Mexico

Superb Cycadian butterflies hatched from their distinctive chrysalises at Finca Monte Carlo in Oaxaca, Mexico just days after our departure.  Photo by Efrem Ricardez Scherenberg

Efren explained that every year about this time the caterpillars and later chrysalises appeared, just for a short while.  He believed they would hatch the following morning, but  they did not.  He graciously shared the photo above just two days after our departure.
Porch of Finca Monte Carlo

Balcony porch of Finca Monte Carlo–perfect for bird and butterfly watching. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Our sojourn into the surrounding tropical forest lead us down a lovely mountain trail where a roaring spring-fed creek spilled over rocks under a thick canopy.   Birds were ubiquitous and insects in every stage of development invited photos and inspection.  That evening, a storm sparked a power outage and the full moon provided our light as a freshly hatched Black Witch Moth settled into the kitchen allowing for close inspection with a flashlight.
Black WItch Moth Huatulco

Black Witch Moth settles into the kitchen at Finca Monte Carlo.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

The surrounding grounds, lush with tropical vegetation and shade grown coffee, offered its own extravaganza of bird and insect life.   Mateo carried a spotting scope for close-ups, as Ulises, the sweet, very spoiled and friendly house cat, accompanied us on meanders through nearby Anthurium beds where dozens of enormous and varied bumblebees harvested pollen from the showy flowers’ spikes.

Mateo and Ulises

Mateo and Ulises come up the rear in our tropical hike of the coffee finca’s lush grounds. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Anthurium and bumblebees

A variety of bumblebees feast on the Anthurium’s pollen spike. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Interestingly, we also found some Tropical milkweed growing along the driveway’s edge.  On it, several eggs–either Monarchs or Queens.  Efren will let us know.

Tropical Milkweed in Oaxaca, Mexico

Tropical milkweed grows wild along the road in Oaxaca during the rainy season. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The next morning, we packed to head back to CasaTulco.

NEXT:  Mariposarios (butterfly houses) of Huatulco, from Llano Grande to Yeélo beé Parque y Mariposario.

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Large, Bat-like, Harmless: Black Witch Moths Making Appearances in South Texas

Black Witch moths are making themselves known in South Texas again. The large, harmless moths appear seasonally–we had one at the ranch this weekend.

Here’s a great shot from Karen Hermann of the fascinating creatures, which often roost in the eaves of front doors resulting in a creepy “startle factor” when they’re flushed by those returning home.  Special thanks to entomologist extraoridnaire Mike Quinn of Austin-based www.texasento.net for helping gather much of the info for this post.

Black Witch Moth

Black Witch Moth photographed by Karen Herrmann in Kansas.

The  intriguing Ascalapha odorata, sometimes known as “the bat moth” resembles a bat in size and shape and with its seven-inch wingspan is the largest moth in North America.  They are common in these parts.

Black Witch Moth Female

Black Witch Moth Female, photo via www.whatsthatbug.com

Reports of large,  bat-like moths surprising people, frequently as they return home and are unlocking their front door, are not uncommon.   Because of their dramatic size,  when these big boys flush, they get your attention.

Black Witch Moth Caterpillar

Black Witch Moth Caterpillars like legumes and can reach three inches. Photo via www.texasento.net

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 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

Hannibal Lechter used actual Black Witch Moth cocoons

Serial killer Hannibal Lechter inserted actual Black Witch Moth cocoons into the mouths of his victims in the movie, Silence of the Lambs.

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!

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