The Giant Black Moths Are Back

Don’t freak, they’re actually pretty nice guys, just scary to look at
BY: JOHN DOOLITLLE

Every October you can witness the hovering and darting of the black witch in the night skies, right here in Los Cabos. It swoops down at you in the night like a bat outta hell  scaring many, and bewitching all.

The black witch moth is the largest moth in North America, with a wingspan up to seven inches. They appear each year here in Baja just after heavy tropical rainstorms, hitching a ride in the upper altitudes of the tropical storms and sometimes covering home eaves and patios with their black masses.

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No, the black witch is not a native. It is actually a migratory moth, much like the monarch butterfly. Originally from southern mainland Mexico, the moth can now be found as far south as Brazil and Argentina, and flies north annually with the change in seasons to Texas and Florida, as far west as Hawaii and east throughout the Caribbean Islands. Yes, these insects flapped all the way from the mainland, across many miles of open sea. After a day or two of resting up, while hiding from the heat under eaves and covered patios, they will continue their flight northward, covering many miles in a single night.

Their night time activities classify them as nocturnal, and a member of the largest families of insects, the noctuidae family. Even though they appear to be black, the moths are actually a very dark brown, which becomes evident when you photograph them with a flash. The males are larger and sport an azure blue zigzag stripe, while the smaller females have a white stripe. Both have an “eye” marking on each wing.

Although migratory, the black witch differs from the monarch butterfly in many ways. Not the least of which is that the black witch reproduces all year round, unlike the monarch that migrates for reproduction. The black witch appears to migrate for preferable weather conditions. It also flies high in the atmosphere, while the monarch butterfly prefers the low altitudes. Monarchs live a staggering eight months, while black witches live and breed in the space of a short three to four weeks.

The black witch has a fascinating cultural history as well. Also known as mariposa de la muerte (butterfly of death) here in Mexico, many people today still believe the ancient Aztec legend that if this moth enters your home while someone is ill, the sick person will die.

Arriving in October and November, coinciding close to the Day of the Dead on November 2, this fluttering prophecy has left many Mexicans freaked out. The Native American Indians of the Gila Valley believed that if the moth entered your room and flew to all four corners of that room, you would die, regardless of present illness or not. The Mayans seemed to have been a bit more practical in their attitude toward this moth, calling it X-mahannail, which literally means, “May I borrow your house,” as this moth commonly enters homes to seek cool places to rest. Bahamians call the moth “money bats” or “money moths” believing that if they land on you, you will come into money.

In many parts of Mexico, it is believed that if one flies over your head, you will lose your hair. But, overwhelmingly, in Mesoamerica, the moth is associated with death. A bum rap considering it doesn’t harm anyone or anything. The moth does not bite, sting, carry parasites nor is it considered an agricultural pest. In fact, the adult moth feasts on rotting fruit and weeds, so they are welcomed by farmers. When they’re young, the large (up to 2.5 inch long), green and black stripped caterpillars eat leguminous woody plant leaves such as acacia, cassia and mesquite, species quite abundant in Baja and the mainland. In fact, if they do get into your house, help them to find their way out. They will die otherwise. We extend a warm welcome this unique, two winged phenomenon just in time for Halloween!