This is a big bug. It needs to be, considering all the cultural baggage it carries.
Say hello to the black witch moth, Ascalapha odorota.
Its native range includes Brazil, Central America, Mexico and much of the United States. These critters are migratory, and have been reported as far north as several Canadian provinces.
This is a fascinating insect, for several reasons:
For starters, the black witch is one of the largest moths found in Florida, with a maximum wingspan of about six inches, tip to tip.
It’s also one of the few really big species hailing from the moth family Noctuidae, which is better known for its crop pest species, such as the fall armyworm and the cabbage looper.
(By the way, you can read about those pests at http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/field/fall_armyworm.htm and http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/veg/leaf/cabbage_looper.htm, respectively.)
And, for such a big moth, the black witch is not well-known here in Florida.
One BugWeek Web Team member has seen only one example during 50+ years in the Gainesville area. We’re not sure whether this situation indicates that the moth has cryptic habits or is rare. Maybe our BugWeek Web Team member is just unlucky to have seen so few examples. (Or maybe he’s lucky – keep reading.)
Whatever the case, Ascalapha odorata is an unusually beautiful moth.
Both genders sport a highly complex pattern on the upper sides of their wings, consisting of several brown shades, with white and black accents. In a nutshell, their coloration resembles that of tree bark, which is probably no accident.
The female has an extra feature – a white band with purple accents running across the upper surface of her forewings and hindwings. It looks unnervingly like a bolt of lightning, truth be told.
And here’s where things really get weird – in just about every place the black witch is commonly found, there’s a cultural tradition that explains what’s likely to happen after a person encounters one.
For example, in Mexico, the moth is known colloquially as the “mariposa de la muerte” (“butterfly of death”) and it’s said that if one shows up at a home where there’s a sick person convalescing inside, he or she will die. Happy stuff.
In Jamaica, the species is called the duppy bat (“ghost bat”) and is believed to symbolize the soul of a deceased person who is not at rest.
This parade of fearful possibilities doesn’t even stop with folklore.
In the original novel The Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris, the serial killer known as Buffalo Bill wasn’t culturing death’s head hawk moths and putting their pupae into the mouths of his victims. Oh no, he used black witch pupae.
We here at the BugWeek Web Team can only speculate that when The Silence of the Lambs was turned into a film, director Jonathan Demme changed the moth species involved because he needed to make the film less frightening. (Filmmakers and television producers are notorious for presenting scientifically inaccurate material on insects and other arthropods – try watching an episode of the TV program Bones with an entomologist, they’ll ruin it for you.)
By the way, Jonathan Demme is a former UF student, who attended classes for a few semesters in the mid-1960s.
If you’ve got ice water in your veins and want to seek out this bug, a good way to start is to go outside after dark and checks the walls adjacent to any well-lit part of your house. Another option is to go out during daytime and check shaded, sheltered areas – eaves, tree trunks, etc.
In case you’re wondering, the black witch isn’t known to cause any of the normal problems associated with insect life – they aren’t poisonous, don’t spread disease and their larvae don’t feast on agricultural crops, preferring woody legumes such as Cassia and catsclaw.
One BugWeek Web Team member had this to say – “this first time I saw a black witch I momentarily thought it was a bat, because it was so big. It was a male that had landed on the wall beside my front-porch light. It was fascinating to look at, the pattern was beautiful.
“And I tell you what, I was darn glad I wasn’t aware of all the superstitions surrounding this moth. If I had been, I would have spent weeks fretting about what terrible event was supposed to befall me or my family. So far as I could tell, nothing bad happened at all.”
That’s what we like to hear.
Photo by Forest and Kim Starr.