Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Black Witch in Ohio!

A Black Witch, Ascalapha odorata, rests on the hand of your narrator, the latter appendage offering a size scale for the enormous moth. Note the moth's beautifully intricate patterning and subtle lavender shading. Hints of gold and blue dot the wings. It truly is an impressive insect.

Dimensionally, this tropical vagrant to Ohio and northerly latitudes is the largest moth species that we get. The resident Cecropia Moth, Hyalophora cecropia, might edge it slightly in terms of weight, but when it comes to sheer size nothing beats one of these spectacular witches. Females are slightly larger than males, and can have a wingspan of seven inches.

The Black Witch perches on a raceme of ripe Pokeberry fruit. It is a male - females have a broad whitish band running across each wing.

A Facebook acquaintance, Kim McCoy, posted photos of this insect on October 5. It turned up on the side of her father's Fayette County house, and she went over to see it and remove the moth for eventual release. I asked if I could photograph it, and she gave it to me.

Opportunities to photograph Black Witches in Ohio are few and far between. And all that I have seen - and photographed - have been females, so this was an easy opportunity to make photos of a boy.

The Black Witch peers over a corymb of White Snakeroot flowers. Their size and appearance can lend a spooky look, to those predisposed to believe that moths and other insects can be "spooky". And many people do. Their are a number of myths about Black Witches, which are sometimes known as Mariposa de la Muerte - "Butterfly of Death". Legend has it that if a witch flies into the casa of someone who is ill, that person will soon die.

To people of my ilk, finding a Black Witch is a wonderful and fortuitous event.

A New England Aster provides a perch for the moth. Today's temps are expected to reach the 70's F, and I'll let it go this afternoon. The core range of the Black Witch is from the southernmost U.S. - I have seen many in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas - south into South America and Brazil. I'd be amazed if any of these northern vagrants ever make it back down that way, though.

And "vagrant" is probably not an accurate descriptor. That implies that the moths are idly wandering. I doubt that's what's happening, from a long-term population perspective. Black Witches are powerful flyers, and increasing numbers seem to be peregrinating far to the north of their "normal" range. In the long term, this is how species expand ranges - by sending scouts far into the hinterlands. Most will probably perish, but over time if climate and habitat shift to better accommodate their needs, the scouts will discover new opportunities and establish new colonies. Indeed, this happened with the Black Witch in Ohio in 2012 when Omar Baldridge discovered a newly eclosed Black Witch on a Mimosa tree, Albizia julibrissin, in their yard in Scioto County. Read about that RIGHT HERE.

Mimosa is an Asian tree commonly in cultivation, and increasing as a "wild" escapee, but they provide suitable fodder for Black Witch caterpillars. Natives that this moth will use as hosts include Black Locust, Robinia pseudoacacia, and Kentucky Coffee Tree, Gymnocladus dioicus. The former is abundant statewide and the latter is locally common. I think we'll likely see this huge moth increasingly reproducing itself in Ohio and other northerly locales. It is the perfect entomological organism for rapid range expansion, and its common host plants provide ample opportunities.


Like the moth it becomes, the Black Witch caterpillar is a gargantuan larva. I made this image last year. A Black Witch had shown up in Columbus, and it turned out to be a gravid female. I and nearly two hundred other people were at Mothapalooza, but as luck would have it, the moth turned up at Don Tumblin's daughter Lacey's house. Don was at Mothapalooza, enticed Lacey to drive the moth down from her Columbus home, and the entire crowd got to see the witch. It was a very cool event. You can see the actual moth HERE.

That moth was a female and full of eggs. A number of eggs were extracted from her before she was released. I'm sure she deposited her remaining eggs on some suitable host plant up this way. Kim Baker took some of the eggs and successfully reared at least one. This caterpillar is one of the spawn from her batch of eggs. If you ever come into close proximity to one munching away on a locust or coffee tree, you probably won't miss it, and you're even less likely to miss the moth should you be fortunate to have one appear under your night light.. 

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