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)

HUMMINGBIRD MOTHS AT THE DELPHI CLUB, ABACO


HUMMINGBIRD MOTHS Hemaris Thysbe

Apart from the plentiful bird species to found all around the Delphi Club, there’s the strange half-way house between insect and bird that is the HUMMINGBIRD MOTH Hemaris Thysbe, also known as Hummingbird Clearwings. These can be seen – and heard – especially at dusk hovering around the flowers in the garden, sipping nectar. In the half-light they are sometimes confused for tiny birds. I have seen them most clearly when they are busy among the flowers in the beds on either side of the lit main staircase. So far I have not managed to get a reasonable photo of one – a situation I hope to put right in May. Meanwhile, I have found some wonderful pictures, not from Abaco, on a website related to a Research Program at Miami University . They were taken by Dr Hays Cummins, to whom thanks for use permission. These and other outstanding images can be found at his comprehensive website, for which CLICK===>>> HERE  

This slideshow requires JavaScript.