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

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