BLACK WITCH MOTH: HARBINGER OF DEATH OR LOTTERY BANKER?


Black Witch moths Ascalapha odorata (Charles J Sharp)

BLACK WITCH MOTH: HARBINGER OF DEATH OR LOTTERY BANKER?

Black Witch moths Ascalapha odorata are seriously bad news. Or wonderfully good news, depending where you are and who you talk to. First, lets look at some of the local names for the creature, from which you will get a pretty clear idea of its somewhat negative folklore status, as well as its area of distribution. I do this not to demonstrate how effortlessly I can ‘borrow’ from Wiki, but rather to show how a simple moth can give rise to widespread superstition and even fear. 

12 SCARY NAMES FOR ONE MOTH

  • Mariposa de la muerte (butterfly of death) – Mexico / Costa Rica
  • Pirpinto de la Yeta (something like ‘jinxing butterfly’) – Argentina
  • Tara Bruja (witch moth) – Venezuela)
  • Miquipapalotl (black death moth) – Mexico
  • Taparaco (something like ‘messenger in black’) – Peru
  • X-mahan-nah (‘borrows your house’ [eh? Ed]) – Mayan
  • Duppy Bat (lost soul / ghost /malevolent spirit) – Jamaica, Caribbean
  • Money Moth, Money Bat – Jamaica, Caribbean (including Bahamas)
  • Other names include Papillion-devil, La Sorcière Noire, Mourning moth, Sorrow moth.

These large moths (wingspan up to 7″)  are nocturnal, with females larger than the males. The diagnostic marking is a spot on each forewing shaped like a number nine or a comma (or maybe even ying / yang symbols?). This spot is often green with orange highlights (seen in the header image). The stripey larval caterpillar can grow up to 7 cm in length.

Black Witch moth larva - Ascalapha odorata - wiki

The moth is a migratory species, flying from (roughly speaking) South America as far north as Florida and Texas. The worst luck is believed to come from having one flutter into your house. It will either bring bad luck to the house – or if there is already misfortune there, it will make it worse. There are variations on this belief – e.g. that the more corners of a room the moth visits, the more doomed the household.

Black Witch moths Ascalapha odorata (Julia Gotz)

IS THERE ANY GOOD NEWS ABOUT THIS CREATURE?

Fortunately yes, and it’s high time to dispel the gloom. In some places (e.g. Hawaii), it is believed than when a loved one has died and an Ascalapha odorata is seen soon after, it is the person’s soul returning to say farewell.

More promisingly still, in the Bahamas a far more positive and practical attitude is shown. If a Money Moth (or Money Bat) lands on you, you will receive some money. Or so it is said. Texas, thinking big, takes this several steps further to the prediction that you will win the lottery (I have a feeling this is a very modern theory).

WHY ARE YOU SCARING US WITH THIS THING?

Because until last month I had never heard of these moths, let alone seen one. Then one balmy Delphi evening, at dusk, someone pointed out a large dark smudge on the door-frame. I only had a cellphone, and I had to use the flash. Here is the moth, with its evil little eyes shining in the flash. Luckily, it was outside not inside the building, which I hope diluted the malevolence radiation level (though I didn’t realise that at the time of course, until I’d looked it up in Sibley’s indispensible ‘Compendium of Evil Moths‘). It’s a terrible photo, but it was useful for ID and I feel that taking a quick shot helped to ward off the worst of the unpleasantness. Though now I think of it I did fish badly (even for me) the following day…

        A poor photo but mine own… 

CULTURAL SIGNIFICANCE IN LITERATURE

Remember Silence of the Lambs? Well in the book, pupae of the Black Witch moth were placed in the mouths of victims by serial killer ‘Buffalo Bill’ as his calling card – though for the film, the moth species was changed to a Death’s-head Hawkmoth, as featured on the poster.

You can read about Hannibal Lecter’s link to moths, and learn how for the film the pupae were were made from sweets (Gummi Bears ™) so as to be harmless if swallowed, HERE

SO ARE THEY HARMFUL IN ANY WAY AND / OR WILL ONE MAKE ME RICH?

No

Taking one’s life in one’s hands…?Black Witch moths Ascalapha odorata (Charles J Sharp)

Photo credits: Charles J Sharp (1, 5); Wiki (2); Julia Gotz (‘juliatrees’) (3)*; Keith Salvesen (4)   Sources: Julia Gotz (‘juliatrees’), Terry Sovil, , Texasbutterflyranch.com, Wiki, Sibley’s ‘Compendium of Evil Moths

*Julie closed her blog, from which photo 3 comes, in 2010. I’m hoping she won’t mind my resurrection of her image to illustrate the species… Black Witch moth photos are quite rare online

SPANISH MOTHS & CONVICT CATERPILLARS ON ABACO


xanthopastis-spanish-moth-abaco-bahamas-2

SPANISH MOTHS & CONVICT CATERPILLARS ON ABACO

I start confidently enough by using plurals in the headline, but in truth I have only ever seen one Spanish Moth on Abaco. It was sunning itself on the wooden stairs leading up to the Delphi Club verandah. I might have trodden on it, except that I usually check out the treads for insects or curly tails (and the surrounding foliage for small birds). They like the warmth of the wood, and also moisture from overnight rain or from plant watering. I took 3 quick photos, but I was on a mission. Breakfast beckoned…

xanthopastis-spanish-moth-abaco-bahamas-3

Spanish Moths (Xanthopastis timais) and their ‘Convict Caterpillars’, as they are known, are generally found in South and Central America, and in the Caribbean. There is a similar moth recorded for North America, but it is a different subspecies. However ‘our’ moth is apparently quite commonly found in Florida. 

xanthopastis_timais_cramer_feeding_on_amaryllis-shiras-wc

When I tried to ID this creature, I was surprised to find how few images of it are to be found online – and of those that are, most are either strictly © or are pinned into Pinterest.** So I’m grateful to the person who uploaded these cool convict caterpillars  above to a wiki-site. They are certainly worthy of admiration, and should be easy to identify. These colourful larvae feed on the leaves and bulbs of their host plants, mainly amaryllis, iris and lily species.

spanish-moth-robert-siegel-stanford-edu

I’d be really interested to hear from anyone who has seen these moths – or the caterpillars – on Abaco. Maybe they are everywhere, all the time, and I just haven’t noticed them. Or maybe it’s just that I am an occasional blow-in interloper, not a resident. Anyway, reports, observations and photos welcome (for the usual imaginary Kalik reward).

xanthopastis-spanish-moth-abaco-bahamas-1

**I’m never quite sure about the status of Pinterest images. Are they reusable with (where possible) an attribution, on the basis that they have been ‘put out there’ in the public domain, as on Facebook? Or does one risk a getting stroppy comments for recycling images that pinners have themselves borrowed in the first place? 

Credits: unknown Wiki benefactor (3); R. Siegel / Stanford.edu (4); moi (1, 2, 5)

BUTTERFLIES ON ABACO (9): GULF FRITILLARIES


Gulf Fritillary, Abaco (Charles Skinner)

BUTTERFLIES ON ABACO (9): GULF FRITILLARIES

It’s been a while since any papilionidae made an appearance on these pages – and much longer since a Gulf fritillary  Agraulis vanillae flew in. These very pretty butterflies are far from rare, but like the ATALA hairstreak, they are always a pleasure to see. Here are a few to enjoy.

Gulf Fritillary, Abaco (Charles Skinner)Gulf Fritillary, Neem Farm, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)5Gulf Fritillary, Neem Farm, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)2Gulf Fritillary, Neem Farm, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)1Gulf Fritillary, Abaco (Charles Skinner)10386393_10152656788408720_3995568288186763659_nGulf Fritillary, Abaco (Charles Skinner)

Credits: Charles Skinner (1, 2, 6, 8), Rhonda Pearce (7), Keith Salvesen (3, 4, 5)

BELLA MOTHS: COLOURFUL, POISONOUS & PROMISCUOUS


Day-flying_Bella_Moth_(Utetheisa_ornatrix) on Rattlebox Blossom (Bob Peterson, Florida)

BELLA MOTHS: COLOURFUL, POISONOUS & PROMISCUOUS

Today’s offering is a creature I have never seen before on Abaco, or anywhere else for that matter. We saw it at the Neem Farm when we were looking for birds, butterflies and Spring flowers. I didn’t have moths in mind at all until I saw this one. For a start, moths are considered creatures of the night, so midday would not be an auspicious time for moth-hunting. As it turns out, the moth we found is, most unusually, active in day-time (‘diurnal’). 

Bella Moth, Neem Farm, Abaco (Keith Salvesen) 1

The BELLA MOTH Utetheisa ornatrix is also known as the ‘ornate moth’ or ‘rattlebox moth’ (after its favourite plant Crotalaria  – me neither). The one we saw was pink, with bright pink showing on the wings in flight. However these moths come in other vivid colours ranging from pink to red or orange, and yellow to white. Their black wing markings have many patterns.

Bella Moth, Neem Farm, Abaco (Keith Salvesen) 2

The bright coloration is, as in many species, nature’s way of saying ‘leave me alone’ and in particular, ‘I am very unpleasant to eat’. It is called APOSEMATISM.  Quite simply, the larvae feed on plants that contain poisonous alkaloids – in particular the yellow rattlebox plant Crotalaria, rendering them, as adult moths, extremely unpalatable. Bella adults may cannibalise eggs, pupae or larvae to counter alkaloid deficiency. Bella Moth, Neem Farm, Abaco (Keith Salvesen) 4

BELLA MOTH SEX LIVES: “IT’S COMPLICATED”

  • Sexual encounters are dictated by females, who compete with other females for males
  • Females seeking to mate always outnumber available males
  • A female bella will release powerful pheromones at dusk to lure males
  • Related females uniquely engage in collective pheromone release
  • This is termed “female pheromonal chorusing”
  • Several males will give the female chemical ‘nuptial gifts’ of poison and sperm
  • The female chooses the best of her suitors, and copulates with 4 or 5 of them
  • The whole process of copulation may take up to 12 hours…
  • In some way I don’t understand, she is then able to select her preferred sperm
  • Humans: do not try any of this at home, in the office, in Maccy Ds or when driving

Ornate_moth_(Utetheisa_ornatrix) Charles J Sharp wiki

Utetheisa_ornatrix (Dumi, Jamaica)

Credits: Header (on rattlebox blossom Crotalaria), Bob Peterson; 3 frankly rather feeble photos RH & Mrs RH; sharp photo by Charles J Sharp; open wings by Dumi

“HAPPY EARTH DAY TO YOU”: DO SOMETHING GREEN!


Abaco (Cuban) Parrot, Delphi, Abaco (Craig Nash)

“HAPPY EARTH DAY TO YOU”: DO SOMETHING GREEN!

Today is the 46th Earth Day, a global event to encourage ecology and conservation, and to discourage the spoiling of the planet by mankind. What becomes lost now may never be retrieved. Plant a tree. Grow some bee- or butterfly-friendly flowers. Clear a patch of beach of plastic trash. Recycle stuff. That sort of thing. 

Atala Hairstreak Eumaeus atala – DelphiAtala Hairstreak Butterfly, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

Gulf Fritillary Agraulis vanillae – Neem FarmGulf Fritillary, Neem Farm, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

I’d lined up some horror-images of plastic-filled birds, entangled turtles, damaged reefs and so forth, of which I have a depressingly large archive. Then, in a spirit of *vogue word alert* positivity I scrapped that miserable idea and decided instead to celebrate some of the natural wonders that can be found on Abaco. 

BAHAMA YELLOWTHROAT – one of Abaco’s 5 ENDEMIC BIRDSBahamas-Great Abaco_Bahama Yellowthroat_Gerlinde Taurer

CUBAN EMERALD HUMMINGBIRD (f) preening – Gilpin PointCuban Emerald Hummingbird preening, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

Some signal species serve as a continuing tribute to those who work to conserve them. The gorgeous ABACO PARROTS, now saved from the brink of extinction – and currently establishing a new colony on New Providence. The rare PIPING PLOVERS that find a safe home to spend their winters on Abaco’s beaches. The 5 ENDEMIC BIRD species. The WHALES & DOLPHINS that populate the waters. The west-indian MANATEES, until very recently almost unknown for Abaco yet now providing a curious addition to the scene as they visit their favourite haunts.

BLAINVILLE’S BEAKED WHALE (m) approaching the BMMRO research vesselBlainville's Beaked Whale, Sandy Point, Abaco 14 (Keith Salvesen

BOTTLENOSE DOLHIN, Sandy Point (about to dive under the boat)Bottlenose Dolphins, Rocky Point, Abaco (Keith Salvesen : BMMRO) 7

Habitat protection has been provided over substantial areas on both land and sea by the creation of natural parks and preserves. These have very recently been extended by the establishment of 4 large PROTECTED AREAS for East Abaco Creeks, Cross Harbour, the Marls and the South Abaco Blue Holes, a wonderful reward for a great deal of hard lobbying by conservation organisations and by many concerned individuals. 

QUEEN ANGELFISHQueen Angelfish ©Melinda Stevens Riger / G B Scuba

BANDED CORAL SHRIMPBanded Coral Shrimp ©Melinda Riger @ G B Scuba copy 2

Scientific research and conservation work is continuously carried out in Abaco waters. The CORAL REEFS that form the 3rd largest barrier reef in the world; the BLUE HOLES that lead to wonderful caves and cathedral caverns of crystal; the vast area of the MARLS and the species that rely on the mangrove swamps; the MANGROVES themselves: all these are watched over and monitored for ways to protect them best for future generations. 

PIPING PLOVER pair, Delphi (taken last month)Piping Plover pair, Delphi Beach, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

PIPING PLOVER on AbacoPiping Plover, Abaco - Bruce Hallett

I’ve mentioned trees and plants. There are a variety of well-known sources for both on Abaco – on the mainland, anyway, and maybe some cays. Any will advise on bee and butterfly attractants. Thinking of which, bird seed feeders and hummer sugar water feeders are cheap and guarantee the interest of garden and coppice birds, and during the winter months some brightly coloured migrants such as buntings and grosbeaks. 

HIBISCUS – DelphiHibiscus, Delphi, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

 BOUGAINVILLEA  – DelphiBougainvillea, Delphi, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Bird of Paradise flower STRELITZIA – Marsh Harbour (seemingly on a steep slope!)Bird of Paradise Flower (Strelitzia) Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

HAPPY EARTH DAY TO YOU!

RALPH’S CAVE South AbacoRalph's Cave, Abaco (Brian Kakuk)

Credits: all images RH except: Abaco parrot, Craig Nash; Bahama yellowthroat, Gerlinde Taurer; Angelfish & Shrimp, Melinda Riger; single piping plover, Bruce Hallett; Ralph’s Cave, Brian Kakuk

BUTTERFLIES ON ABACO (8): WHITE PEACOCK


White Peacock Butterfly, Abaco (Keith Salvesen) 1

BUTTERFLIES ON ABACO (8): WHITE PEACOCK

The white peacock (Anartia jatrophae) is not a rare butterfly in the northern Bahamas. However, until recently I had never – or never consciously – seen one before. Then we came across a few at the Neem Farm, all very frisky and mostly refusing to settle for more than 1/100 second. By the time I have remembered to remove my lens cap, they are 50 yards away.

White Peacock Butterfly, Abaco (Keith Salvesen) 2White Peacock Butterfly, Abaco (Keith Salvesen) 3White Peacock Butterfly, Abaco (Keith Salvesen) 4

I checked out these pretty but unassuming butterflies online because they seemed rather pale and anaemic. As far as I can make out this is because they were still in winter colouring; in summer they are more brightly marked. Here’s a photo of a dishevelled white peacock taken in June at Delphi by Charlie Skinner, which shows stronger colours.

White Peacock, Abaco DSC_4786 (Charlie Skinner)

ARE THEY EVER FOUND LOOKING BRIGHT AND NOT FALLING APART?

Yes, of course, but interestingly, never ever in the field. The one below, non-anaemic and intact, was thoughtfully uploaded to Wiki by Greg Hume. He took it at a butterfly show, where presumably tatty butterflies are excluded…

WhitePeacock (Greg Hume)

Photos: Keith Salvesen 1 – 4; Charlie Skinner 5; Greg Hume 6

BUTTERFLIES ON ABACO (7): LONG-TAILED SKIPPER


Long-tailed Skipper Butterfly, Abaco (Keith Salvesen) 1

BUTTERFLIES ON ABACO (7): LONG-TAILED SKIPPER 

The Abaco Neem Farm is run by Nick Miaoulis with a passion and commitment to the environment matched by few. The farm products can be found in the excellent Abaco Neem shop in Marsh Harbour. This is wonderful place for birding. Besides fruit trees of many kinds, there is a perfect mix of coppice and pine-forest to satisfy the most habitat-pedantic species. 

Long-tailed Skipper Butterfly, Abaco (Keith Salvesen) 3

Around the fruit trees, wildflowers are encouraged to thrive. These attract bees (Nick also has hives) and of course butterflies – not forgetting moths. Amongst the fluttery creatures, we found a long-tailed skipper (Urbanus proteus), a butterfly found in tropical and subtropical areas. It is a striking creature, with iridescent blues on the body and two long tails extending from the hindwings. The caterpillar is said to be a crop and ornamental plant pest; the butterfly is described as uncommon (maybe for the Bahamas, anyway).

Urbanus proteus: the caterpillarUrbanus_proteus4 (Mike Boone Bug Guide)

Urbanus proteus on Man-o-War CayLong-tailed Skipper - Abaco Butterfly (Charmaine Albury)

Two non-Abaco examplesLong-tailed_Skipper_Butterfly_(Urbanus_proteus)_1 (Jonathan Zander Wiki)Common_longtailed_skipper_(Urbanus_proteus_domingo)_female (Charles Sharp)

Abaco Neem Farm (with beehive)Bee Hive, Neem Farm, Abaco (Mrs RH)

Credits: Keith Salvesen (1, 2); Wiki-pillar (3); Charmaine Albury (4); Non-Abaco Wiki-Skippers Jonathan Zander (5) and Charles Sharp (6); Mrs RH (7)