|ASCALAPHA Hbn., 1809|
|IDECHTHIS Hbn., 1821|
|OTOSEMA Hbn., 1823|
|EREBUS; auth., not Latr., 1810|
|odorata (L., 1758)|
|odora (L., 1764), missp.|
|agarista (Cram., 1777)|
This moth is a member of the family Noctuidae, the largest family within the order Lepidoptera (the Insect order comprised of Butterflies and Moths), with more than 2900 species in U.S. and Canada. One in four North American Lepidopterans is a Noctuid.
Other common names for the Black Witch moth are: La Sorcičre Noire (French) and Mariposa de la Muerte (Spanish). Tom Dimock of Ventura, CA reports (pers. comm., 2004) that a coworker who has family in Yucatan, Mexico says that the Mayan people call the moth Mah-Ha-Na, which means "May I borrow your house?" An allusion to the moths frequently entering peoples houses.
Spanish: Mariposa de la Muerte (Mexico), Pirpinto de la Yeta (Argentina)
Nahuatl: Miquipapalotl, Tepanpapalotl (Mexico) (miqui = death, black + papalotl = moth)
Quechua: Taparaco (Peru)
Mayan: X-mahan-nail (Yucatan) (mahan = to borrow + nail = house)
Black Witch moths are common to abundant throughout the New World tropics (south to Brazil). They flyJune to October the Rio Grande Valley and year round south Florida. They are very common across Texas following the start of the rainy season in Mexico each June.
They occur on the Caribbean Islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. From 1983 through 1985, adults were most abundant in September on Guadeloupe. Other Caribbean Islands here it's present include Bahamas, St-Kitts, Montserrat, Dominica, St-Lucia. Jamaica, Puerto-Rico, Virgin Islands. They have even been all the main Hawaiian Islands.
In 34 years of continuous light trapping in Louisiana, Vernon Brou (2003) collected about 25 Black Witch specimens. Brou's dates of capture were: 13 February, March, and July to 30 November, though most records were from September. In June of 2004 over two dozen moths were reported by various observers from Louisiana primarily along the coast.
Holland (1903) reported collecting a specimen in Leadville, Colorado, in a snow storm on the Fourth of July. It was caught fluttering about in the drifts!
Rings et al. (1992) show late May to late October records for Ohio. (The May record is unusually early.) It has been taken in nine Ohio counties.
-------> Map of U.S. records known to me <--------
----------> A Discussion of State Records <----------
------------------> Combined North American Black Witch Records <-----------------
The Black Witch has a fascinating cultural as well as natural history. Known in Mexico by the Indians since Aztec times as mariposa de la muerte (butterfly of death). When there is sickness in a house and this moth enters, the sick person dies. (Hoffmann 1918) A variation on this theme heard in the lower Rio Grande Valley (Southmost Texas) is that death only occurs if the moth flies in and visits all four corners of one's house.
Merlmn & Vasquez (2002) point out that the number four is important in Mesoamerica because of its relationship with the four cardinal directions (east, west, north and south). The moth was known among the Mexicans as Micpapalotl, the butterfly of death. In Mesoamerica, from the prehispanic era until the present time nocturnal butterflies have been associated with death and the number four.
In some parts of Mexico, people joke that if one flies over someone's head, the person will lose his hair. Still another myth: seeing one means that someone has put a curse on you!
In Hawaii, Black Witch mythology, though associated with death, has a happier note in that if a loved one has just died, the moth is an embodiment of the person's soul returning to say goodbye.
On Cat Island, Bahamas, they are locally known as Money Moths or Moneybats, and the legend is that if they land on you, you will come into money.
Similarly in South Texas if a Black Witch lands above your door and stays there for a while you would win the lottery!
Note: the Black Witch moth does not bite, sting, nor carry diseases. It has only a straw-like proboscis or tongue to drink flower nectar through. It is perfectly harmless though it might cause one to be quite startled if flushed from its daytime hiding place.
The cultural history surrounding this species includes it's use as the subject of various works of art.
Black Witch Moth - Photograph - Ronnie Gaubert
E Spot, Black Witch Moth, Venezuela - Medium: oils - Suzanne VandeBoom
Patterns in Nature - Black Witch Moth - Valley Land Fund Contest 2000 Winning Photograph - Hugh Lieck
This nocturnal insect, like nearly all moths, rests during the day and flies at night. Some of the most frequently reported daytime roosts are in people's garages, carports or under eves. During the day they are usually easily approached at close distances allowing for easy photography! They are usually present only for a day, though occasionally an individual may stay for as long as three days. Not infrequently, they are reported resting on or under people's cars, even while the vehicle's moving!
Much less common are reports of the species roosting out in the open. Dave Patton and Paul Conover photographed one of seven moths they encountered in coastal Louisiana where it took refuge at the base of a clump of grass. Wayne Keller (Curator of the Grand Isle Butterfly Dome, pers. comm., 2004), reported "dozens" of Black Witch moths resting under the raised wooden boardwalks leading to the beach in June of 2004.
Moths, especially those in the family Noctuidae, are readily attracted to house and street lights. They also come to tree sap, rotting fruit and alcohol.
Mature larvae are
up to 7 cm long, brown to black with three irregularly shaped pale
splotches and two parallel dark lines running down their backs.
According to Bernarr Kumashiro (Hawaii Dept. of Agriculture, pers. comm., 2004), the larvae come out at night to feed on foliage, and hide under bark during the day.
Charles Bordelon, of the Texas Lepidoptera Survey, reports (pers. comm., 2005) 100s of BWM larvae on numerous tree trunks inthe fall of one year at Bentsen-RGV State Park, Mission, Texas.
Janzen & Hallwachs (1999) have 31 BWM caterpillar images in their database.
Predators and Parasites
Zimmerman (1958) reports, "I have been unable to find any records of parasites of this species in Hawaii. This is an unusual situation."
For predators on Hawaii, Zimmerman lists Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), Common Mynahs (Acridotheres tristis), House Sparrows (Passer domesticus).
The Common Mynah, introduced from India in 1865, is one of the most common birds in Hawaii. According to a local song, nothing is certain but "taxes and death and the mynah bird." It is gregarious, and the large flocks that gather at roosting time are most noisy and quarrelsome. It is omnivorous in its tastes, eating house scraps, fruit, grain, insects, and grubs of all kinds (Caum, 1933).
On 9 June 2004, Brush Freeman (pers. comm., 2004) observed a male Purple Martin (Progne subis subis) in Port O'Connor, Calhoun Co., TX feed a Black Witch to a Purple Martin nestling! In August 2008, Brush observed an Loggerhead Shrike eat a Black Witch.
Chris Durden photographed a Wolf Spider (Family Lycosidae) preying upon a Black Witch in Tikal, Guatemala.
Caterpillar Food Plants
The Black Witch is not considered an agricultural pest as its large smooth gray caterpillars feed on woody Legumes such as Acacia, Cassia, Ebony and Mesquite. Sala (1959) lists Acacia dealbata as the principle foodplant in California. Roy O. Kendall reared series of the moths "ex ovo" on Pithecellobium flexicaule (now: Ebenopsis ebano) and from Acacia rigidula. Most of its documented caterpillar food plants listed below are members of the Legume family native to the southwestern United States, which corresponds to the moth's abundance there.
The only foodplants native to the eastern U.S. (highlighted in bold red) are Kentucky Coffee Tree (Gymnocladus dioica) and species of Locust (Robinia sp.). The linked USDA website suggests that the Kentucky Coffee Tree is native to (at least a portion of) nearly every state east of the Rocky Mountains, but the range is also suggested to be much narrower, as well as wider. The University of Florida shows G. dioica as ranging throughout almost all the lower 48 states.
Various species of Robinia are native to the eastern U.S., e.g. Robinia hispida, Robinia pseudoacacia, and Robinia viscosa.
The following host plants are from Becker & Miller (2002), Janzen & Hallwachs (1999), Robinson et al. (2002), Sala (1959), Tietz (1972) and Zimmerman (1958).
|Anacardiaceae -||Introduced to:||Native to:|
|Mangifera indica L.||Mango||Florida, Hawaii*|
|Fabaceae - Legume or Pea Family|
|Acacia dealbata Link||Silver Wattle||California||Brazil|
|Acacia decurrens Willd.||Green Wattle||California||Brazil|
|Acacia greggii Gray||Catclaw Acacia||Southwestern. U.S.|
|Acacia rigidula Benth.||Blackbrush Acacia||Texas, Mexico|
|Albizia lebbeck (L.) Benth.||Woman's Tongue||Texas, Florida, Hawaii||Cuba|
|Anadenanthera peregrina (L.) Speg.||Cohoba Tree||Puerto Rico|
|Cassia fistula L.||Golden Shower||Florida|
|Cassia grandis L. f.||Pink Shower||Florida||Brazil|
|Cassia javanica L. subsp. nodosa||Apple Blossom||Florida, Hawaii|
Ebenopsis ebano (Berl.) Barneby & Grimes (was: Pithecellobium flexicaule)
So. TX, So. FL, NE & Yucatan, MEX
Gymnocladus dioica (L.) K. Koch
Kentucky Coffee Tree
Inga bahiensis Benth.
Inga vera Willd.
|Mora oleifera Ducke||Cuba|
|Pithecellobium unguis-cati (L.)||Catclaw Blackbead||Florida|
|Prosopis pubescens Benth.||Screwbean Mesquite||Southwestern U.S.|
|Prosopis velutina Woot.||Velvet Mesquite||Southwestern U.S.|
|Robinia sp.||Locust||Widespread in U.S.|
|Samanea saman (Jacq.) Merr.||Monkey-Pod||Florida, Hawaii|
|Moraceae - Fig Family|
|Ficus carica L.||Edible Fig||Eastern U.S, CA.|
*Web links and Status within the United States per USDA, NRCS, PLANTS Database
The northward migration of the Black Witch appears to be triggered by the rainy season in Mexico which typically starts in early June and lasts through October. The moths were reported daily in 2004 starting at the end of May.
One of the more interesting aspects of the Black Witch is its ability to migrate great distances even over open water. In September 1998 large nocturnal moth migrations including Black Witches were reported (Russell 1999) as regular occurrences on several oil platforms off the coast of Louisiana. Liz Deluna reported five dead Black Witches floating on the water throughout a pelagic trip on 20 July 2001 approximately 80 miles east of Brownsville. Williams (1958) reported one captured on a ship about 800 miles south-southeast of Rio de Janeiro and two others on separate occasions 2,000 miles east of South America. Van Noort (1998) reports Black Witches reaching Africa. They have even made their way to all the main Hawaiian Islands.
How these moths behave in the fall is not well known. Vernon Brou's (2003) 34 years of continuous light trapping in Louisiana shows a peak abundance in September, but what is the origin of those individuals? In Texas, many tropical butterflies annually stray north from Mexico in September and October. Favorable conditions for Mexican strays in the fall include milder temperatures, continuing southerly winds, and higher rainfall which induces caterpillar food plants to put on fresh growth. Also many plants have a fall bloom period, e.g. Goldenrod (Solidago spp.).
That the relatively high number of September Black Witches in Louisiana may have come from the north is suggested by the Black Witches reported (Russell 1999) as regular occurrences in September 1998 on several oil platforms off the coast of Louisiana. Most moths migrate at high elevations (Walker 1980) and thus they would understandably overshoot the coast if heading south though Louisiana in September. Also, southbound Monarchs usually start crossing the Red River in north Texas in late September. (See Journey North data for Fall of 2003, 2002 and 2001.)
Linda Alley of Corpus Christi, Nueces Co., TX, photographed four Black Witch moths at banana bait in her yard on September 20, 2002. Of the four moths photographed, the three most visible are quite fresh. Alley reports (pers. comm., 2004) not seeing that many at one time before or since.
Perhaps we can get more insight into this question during the current (2004) outbreak year.
In Comparison to the Monarch Migration
The Monarch migration differs from that of the Black Witch in a number of fundamental ways, in terms of where they go, what they do and how long they live in winter as well as the timing and the condition of the individuals passing through Texas.
The worn Monarchs that trickle north through Texas starting in mid-March are in fact the remnant survivors of the millions of individuals that migrated south through Texas (then in fairly fresh condition) the previous fall. Monarchs overwinter in diapause (a hibernation-like state) in formerly remote colonies in the central highland forests east of Mexico City. Adult Monarchs of the overwintering generation can live a staggering eight months.
Black Witches by contrast, breed year round in overlapping generations. Their adult life stage is thought to last three to four weeks. The moths that fly north out of Mexico and south Texas in June are primarily in fresh condition, though some are worn to quite worn. Lepidopterans with torn wings barely able to fly are known as "rags."
Monarchs that overwinter in Mexico almost exclusively migrate to eastern North America, while those that overwinter along the California coast primarily remain west of the Rocky Mountains. The moth by contrast, has no specific overwintering sites in California or in Mexico. They migrate north out of Mexico in a broad swath. The greatest push northward in 2004 appears to be up the Great Plains States: Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska.
While the Monarch starts flying north through Texas as early as mid-March, the Black Witch generally doesn't start migrating through Texas until late June. The later start date for the moth may in part be due to the fact that the moth migrates at night when the temperatures are on average 20 dF cooler. If the Black Witch migrates at high altitudes as suggested by Walker (1980), then depending on how high, the temperature should be significantly cooler than at ground level.
Related Migratory Moths
At least 12 other North American moths in the Owlet family Noctuidae are migratory, most of which are agricultural pests such as like the Beet and Fall Armyworms, Corn Earworms, and Black Cutworms (so called because they clip off young plants near the ground).
Two species that standout among noctuids are the Owl Moth (Thysania zenobia) and the White Witch (Thysania agrippina).
The Owl Moth has been recorded in Canada 12 times. There are no confirmed White Witch records for the U.S.
----------> Other North American Migratory Insects <--------
Hurricane Claudette, 2003
Storms often influence the movement of insects (Engelhardt 1934, Neck 1977). A most dramatic case in point, Brush Freeman (2003) reported seeing hundreds of Black Witches within the eye of Hurricane Claudette when it made landfall along the middle Texas coast at Port O'Connor on July 15, 2003. While Brush observed none before the hurricane, hundreds, perhaps thousands (Cappiello 2003) were reported in and around Port O'Connor by many observers immediately after the storm passed. Numerous Black Witches were also reported by Port Lavaca residents 20 miles northwest of Port O'Connor. Four Black Witches were reported on the north wall of a house in Matagorda, 40 miles up the coast from Port O'Connor.
As no moths were observed prior to the hurricane's arrival, this raises the question of whether they came across the Gulf with the storm. This species is common to abundant in Mexico.
Claudette's sustained wind speeds from July 8 - 16 slowed to 50 mph early on July 11 when she brushed the Yucatan Peninsula as a tropical storm. At landfall during the late morning hours on the 15th near Port O'Connor, Claudette likely had sustained winds of 85 mph (a Category 1 hurricane). Maximum gusts, estimated at 100 mph at Port Comfort, caused some dramatic instances of damage such as this Matagorda Beach House.
However as the cross section of this category 3 hurricane (from the University of South Carolina, Department of Geography) shows, the eye of even a strong hurricane has winds in the single digits. (Move your cursor over the red letters to see the differences among the meteorological variables at those points.) Here's an animated vertical cross section of a hurricane's circulation (from the Lyndon State College, Department of Meteorology).
One of the overriding questions concerning this potential trans-Gulf migration is how could the insect sustain itself without feeding or resting during the four days that it took Claudette to travel from the Yucatan Peninsula to the Coastal Bend. Note that many members of the similarly-sized Silkmoths, Family Saturniidae, don't even have functioning mouthparts and live for about seven days, its quite plausible that if a large number of Black Witches emerged from their pupal stage just prior to Claudette's of the approach the Yucatan, they could ride the storm across the Gulf, particularly if they could find updrafts within.
I'm not a meteorologist, but it seems to me that the only other plausible explanation for the occurrence of hundreds of moths in the hurricane's eye is that the ground winds drew the moths in from along the Texas coast. However this surprising entomological phenomena was announced to TX-Butterfly, a listserv then with over 250 subscribers. It elicited only scattered reports of single Black Witches seen around the state in July. In addition, 53 Fourth of July Butterfly Counts were conducted across Texas from mid June to early August. P. D. Hulce reported seeing three Black Witches on July 9, 2003 during the Brownsville Butterfly Count. No other 2003 counts reported a single Black Witch.
On July 24, nine days after Claudette made landfall, I contacted (via email) approximately 90 households living all along the Texas coast that participate in the Texas Monarch Watch Program. The only reply concerning the moth was the Matagorda sighting of four listed previously. This paucity of sightings is in large contrast to the 14 Black Witch locations reported in Texas in 2001.
------> Images of Hurricane Claudette over Port O'Connor from NOAA and the Space Station <-----
More Information on Tropical Storm / Hurricane Claudette
Given that very few Black Witches were reported in 2003 for anywhere in Texas except for the extraordinary numbers where the eye of Hurricane Claudette made landfall, the most logical conclusion is that the Black Witches came ashore with the hurricane.
Naturalists across the state proved their ability to report occurrences of this species during an minor outbreak year in 2001 when Black Witches were reported from 13 locations in 12 counties in the month of June. The only location in 2001 to report moderate numbers, no more than 20, was at the Chaparral Wildlife Management Area located approximately 100 miles south-southwest of San Antonio. All other sightings were of no more than one individual per day, the only other exception being on July 20 during a pelagic trip in deep water east of Brownsville where five were seen dead on the water. It may just be coincidental, but the date, location, and modest number of moths seen out in the Gulf on July 20, 2001 coincides well with the track of Hurricane Claudette and the huge number of moths seen at Port O'Connor on July 15, 2003 and shortly thereafter.
Large numbers of Lepidopterans and other insects have frequently been reported offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. In preliminary data from the Migration Over the Gulf Project, Bob Russell reported "massive offshore movements" of Sphingidae moths on Gulf oil platforms during Oct 7-12, 1998. Aeshnidae and Libellulidae Dragonflies were said to "continue in force". Nymphalidae, Pieridae and Hesperiidae butterflies were common.
Baust et al, (1981) report 22 species of insects collected on an offshore oil platform located approximately 160 km south-southeast of Galveston, Texas, on the night of October 1-2, 1978. Light winds for three days preceded their observation. Of particular interest was their report that "most of the insect arrived in single species swarms throughout the night, alighted for one quarter to two hour periods, and then departed, still in separate swarms." Providing some indication of numbers, they report that "many thousands of individuals arrived at one platform [location?] over a three hour period". That these numbers might be sustained over a period of time was suggested by their observation that "one platform erected 140 km south of the nearest landfall in February had an Eastern Kingbird nest, with three eggs."
Walker (1980) determined that moths typically migrate at high elevations as opposed to butterflies which typically have a more controlled flight closer to the ground, in what's known as the boundary layer (Walker 1985). Moths migrating at higher elevations with the wind have less control as to their final destination. Tropical Storm Claudette may have picked up the Black Witches as it passed Jamaica or the Yucatan peninsula, or possibly intercepted and redirected a large trans-gulf flight already in progress.
Black Witch Moths (Ascalapha odorata) in the Eyes of Tropical Storms
To help us better understand the movements of this insect, we need your observations!
If you see a Black Witch, particularly outside of Texas, please contact:
| Mike Quinn
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Additional Publications on North American Migratory Insects
03 Nov 2008 © Mike Quinn / firstname.lastname@example.org / Texas Entomology