Friday, September 16, 2011

That ol’ black witch moth magic is back


They’re back. No, not poltergeists. The black witch moth (Ascalaphs odorata) has returned. The last time they were here was when they rode the winds of tropical storm Cindy in July 2005. This time, they arrived with Tropical Storm Lee.

Black witch moths are easily distinguished from our native species. Besides their size and unusual flight characteristics, the moths have blackish-brown wings with an eye spot shaped like a number 9 on the leading edge of each forewing. The females have a zigzagged band of white across the wings.

Whether they’re harbingers of doom, as is believed in a number of places in the Western Hemisphere, or portents of good fortune depends on where you’re from. If you think the name black witch moth would seem to indicate that the majority of sentiment about them falls on the misfortune side of the scale, you’d be correct. In our neighbor to the south, Mexico, it is associated with death; the same in Hawaii. The moth is native to Mexico and I can see how a superstition could take hold over hundreds of years (as far back as the Aztecs).

However, it is not a native of Hawaii, and how they came to see it as symbol of demise is unclear. At least in Hawaii it isn’t a bringer of death, it is thought to be the soul of the recently passed coming to say goodbye. In the Bahamas and in south Texas, an opposite view is held about the arrival of the moth. There it is seen as a sign of good luck, predicting that the observer will soon come into money.

It’s even managed to work its way into popular literature. In chapter 14 of “The Silence of The Lambs,” the heroine Clarice takes a cocoon of the black witch moth to an entomologist to get it identified. The serial killer called “Buffalo Bill” would place the moths into the mouths of his victims. I know, I know. In the movie version, they used a death’s head moth. Well, that was a movie, and producers tend to go toward the lowest common denominator to sell their product and a death’s head moth is easier to understand by the typical moviegoing audience. Personally, I like books better. I have two or three of them scattered around my house that I read every day. I haven’t been in a movie theater since 1976.

The black witch moth goes by a number of unofficial names: la sorciere noire (French for black witch moth), mariposa de la muerta, mourner’s moth; papillion devil, sorrow moth, duppy bat and money bat. Those last two names come from Jamaica and the Bahamas, respectively, and refer to the confusion people have when they see the moth in flight. When they fly, they look and act a lot like bats. Considering their size (they’re the largest moths in North America), the confusion can be excused.

Not only do these moths mimic bats in their size, coloration and flight characteristics, they also have a tympanum (inner ear) that can detect a real bat’s ecolocation sounds. Scientists believe that these organs help black witch moths avoid hungry bats.

Whether these distinctive moths are a sign that I’m going to win the lottery or that Gotterdammerung is upon us, we’ll just have to wait and see. Me, I’m happy that I’ve got a black witch moth specimen to add to my insect collection.

Tim Lockley, a specialist in entomology, is retired from a 30-year career as a research scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. To have him answer your individual questions, please send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Tim Lockley, c/o Sun Herald, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi, MS 39535.

Original Article

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