Happy New Year bug fans, and welcome to another edition of Friday Flyers! It’s the first Friday of 2014, and this is the 25th edition of our weekly feature. We had a lot of fun last year bringing you our Friday Flyers, and we hope you learned a little bit about the wonderful world of Insects. To start off 2014, we thought we would introduce you to the Black Witch, a species from the Noctuid moth family. Most admittedly, the name Black Witch is somewhat sinister sounding, and superstition associates this moth with death. Obviously, this belief is unfounded, but since its alternative Latin scientific name is Ascalapha odorata, for the sake of easier discussion, we’ll stick with its common name, Black Witch! The Noctuid moth family contains the largest number of species in any moth or butterfly family. The Black Witch is the largest Noctuid moth in North America, and the third largest Noctuid moth in South America.
The Black Witch is seldom seen in our area, because it migrates here in late summer from the southern states. But actually the Black Witch is fairly common and is widely distributed across southern North America, and continues south to Argentina. Even when you live in southern states like Florida or Texas, the reason you don’t see them very often is because like most moths, they fly at night. In addition, they are superbly camouflaged with a cryptic pattern that allows them to blend in with tree bark when at rest during the day. We saw a Black Witch actually landed on the side of our previous house in Elgin in September 1992. Most likely it was attracted by our house lights, and remained there over night. You will often find them in the early morning, in areas like under the roof overhangs of your house. They look for shadowy protected areas to rest during the day. Unlike butterflies which usually rest with their wings up over their backs, the Black Witch rests with its wings partially spread and horizontal to its body. When resting, they have wingspans in the 5 to 6 inch range and sometimes even larger. The Black Witch is dimorphic with the females and males looking somewhat different. If you’re not familiar with the Black Witch, you might think the males and females are not the same species. Their caterpillars are usually shades of grey and brown with dark markings, and they eat a variety of plants most often preferring species of Acacia. Their caterpillars turn into “naked pupae” (without a surrounding cocoon) that they form usually in leaf covered grass or partially burrowed into moist soil.
Black Witch moths are fast strong flyers. They have thick but streamlined bodies with very strong wing muscles. They have long threadlike antennae, unlike the feathery antennae of many other moth species. Also, their legs have “spikes” called “tibial spurs” that can be 1/8 inch long and are quite durable and sharp. Black Witches tend to be “nervous” when not fully at rest, keeping their wings fluttering rapidly, and seeming to fly away with very little provocation. Also, as part of their defensive capabilities, they have “tympanal organs” on the sides of their abdomens, a type of uncovered membrane that functions as a primitive ear. Yes, they can hear sounds and avoid predators like bats!!!
If you want to see Black Witch moths in the wild, it requires some effort and a lot of luck. Some avid moth collectors use a sugary bait that they paint on tree trunks. Many other types of Noctuid moths will come to this bait, and very occasionally a Black Witch. Black Witches are more common the further south you are, therefore it’s easier to find them in the southern states. In South America, we have seen them at street lights in French Guiana, Brazil, Ecuador, and in Mexico and Puerto Rico. The most effective way to see them in the tropics is to use an ultra-violet light source, with our preference being a Mercury-Vapor light. At times when they are on the wing, it is possible to attract several in an evening. Because they are strong flyers, you can attract them from several blocks away if your light is bright enough. But it’s not easy to find a perfect specimen. All that flying through the jungle branches causes nicks and rips in their wings. When you do find a perfect specimen though, they are subtly beautiful. Although they vary in color quite a bit, they have lots of wing pattern elements including undulating cryptic lines, eye-spots, and in some specimens a purplish shading that is very unexpected when you see it for the first time. When you finally see a Black Witch in the wild, it will leave a lasting impression on you! We have Black Witch moths as well as their larger Noctuid relatives in our Wonders Of Nature department, beautifully framed and matted as always!!!
We hope you enjoyed this week’s edition of Friday Flyers. We love sharing our interest in butterflies and insects with you. Please enjoy the photos we have posted with this week’s edition, and be sure to see all the previous pictures in our Friday Flyers album. Remember to “like” our Wonders Of Nature page, and be sure to pass it along to all your Facebook Friends. We hope you’ll visit our Wonders Of Nature department soon, and we look forward to seeing you.