Black Witch Moth: All You Need to Know in a Nutshell

The Black Witch Moth, scientifically known as Ascalapha odorata, is a fascinating nocturnal creature commonly found in the tropics of the Americas.

Known for its large size and bat-like appearance, this migratory moth has captivated many with its impressive wingspan reaching up to 7 inches.

Belonging to the Erebidae family, these intriguing moths are often shrouded in mystery due to their night-time habits.

Black Witch

As one of the largest insects in the continental United States, the Black Witch Moth stands out among its peers for its unique features such as its migratory nature and resemblance to bats

As you read on, you’ll delve into the world of this captivating species and discover everything you need to know about Black Witch Moths.

Overview and Identification

Scientific Name

The Black Witch Moth is scientifically known as Ascalapha odorata and is a part of the moth family Erebidae 1.

Physical Characteristics

  • Color: Predominantly dark brown or gray with irregular patterns
  • Forewings: Features unique light-colored bands
  • Hindwings: Subtler color patterns, typically a mix of gray and brown hues
  • Size: Considered the largest insect in the continental United States
  • Wingspan: Can reach up to 7 inches 1

Overall, the Black Witch Moth’s distinctive coloring, wingspan, and nocturnal habits make it stand out among other moths.

The combination of its large size and unique wing patterns makes it easy to identify.

Table: Black Witch Moth vs Other Moths

FeatureBlack Witch MothOther Moths
WingspanUp to 7 inches 1Typically smaller
Forewing ColoringLight-colored bandsVaries widely
Hindwing ColoringGray and brown huesVaries widely
Activity PeriodNocturnalNocturnal or diurnal

Black Witch

Black Witch Moth: Male vs Female

While both male and female moths share certain similarities, they also exhibit distinct differences that can be used for identification purposes. 

Male Black Witch Moth:

  • Size: Typically smaller than the female.
  • Color: Lighter in shade, often with a brownish hue.
  • Markings: Less pronounced wing patterns compared to females. They may lack or have less distinct light-colored bands on the forewings.

Female Black Witch Moth:

  • Size: Generally larger, making them more noticeable.
  • Color: Darker, usually with a deep brown or almost black hue.
  • Markings: Females are easily identifiable by their striking wing patterns. They often have light-colored bands on their forewings and a more intricate pattern overall.

Distribution and Habitat

North and Central America

The Black Witch Moth (Ascalapha odorata) is commonly found in the tropics of the Americas.

They are primarily distributed across North and Central America, including the southern United States, Mexico, and Hawaii 1.

In the summer season, these moths have been spotted as far north as Canada.

Migration of Black Witch Moths occurs during the fall season. They venture further north, reaching places like Wisconsin and Michigan.

However, these moths are more prevalent in South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley 2.

Black Witch

Caribbean

The Black Witch Moth also inhabits the Caribbean region, adding more diversity to its distribution range.

Their expansive presence showcases their adaptability to various habitats throughout North and Central America and the Caribbean 3.

Life Cycle and Reproduction

Caterpillars: Diet and Host Plants

The Black Witch Moth’s life cycle begins as eggs are laid by the female moth on host plants.

The caterpillar larvae then hatch and start feeding on the leaves of its host plants, which typically include:

  • Acacia
  • Leucaena
  • Mimosa

These caterpillars are known to have a green appearance, blending in with the foliage they feed on.

Pupation

Once the caterpillars have completed their growth, they enter the pupation stage.

The pupa is usually found within a silk cocoon attached to a branch or leaf of the host plant.

This stage lasts for up to a couple of weeks, after which the adult Black Witch Moth emerges.

Adult Moths: Diet and Lifespan

Adult Black Witch Moths, sometimes referred to as “Butterfly of Death,” do not feed like their caterpillar counterparts.

Instead, they rely on the energy stored during the larval stage for sustenance throughout their adult life.

The lifespan of an adult Black Witch Moth is relatively short, ranging from a few days to a couple of weeks.

As these moths are primarily nocturnal, they are often seen flying at night.

Males and females of the species participate in mating during this time, leading to the birth of new generations and continuing the life cycle of the Black Witch Moth.

Behavior and Predators

Nocturnal Habits

The Black Witch Moth has nocturnal habits. For this purpose, it has improved night vision as well as other adaptations for low-light environments

Camouflage

Camouflage is an essential feature for the Black Witch Moth. It has two color forms: light and dark.

The light-colored moth has different genes from the dark form.

The dark-colored moths have a mutation in their DNA, which gives them better adaptability to darker environments.

Black Witch Moth

Predators and Threats

Common predators of the Black Witch Moth include:

  • Birds
  • Bats
  • Invertebrates

The moth’s primary defense mechanism against these predators are the eyespots present on its wings. These eyespots serve to:

  • Deter predators by mimicking a larger creature
  • Confuse predators about the moth’s actual size

In addition to predators, the Black Witch Moth also faces threats related to climate and the availability of food sources for their larvae.

Overall, the Black Witch Moth is an incredible creature with fascinating nocturnal habits, effective camouflage techniques, and strategies to evade predators.

Cultural Significance

Folklore and Beliefs

The Black Witch Moth holds various cultural significances in different parts of the world. In many cultures, it is associated with folklore and beliefs surrounding death and bad omens.

In some Latin American countries, the appearance of a Black Witch Moth is believed to be a sign that a person will soon pass away, or has already died, adding to the moth’s mystique and symbolism.

However, in other cultures, it’s seen as a symbol of good luck or fortune.

Detail of the wing of a Black Witch

Symbolism in Literature and Film

Black Witch Moths have also made their way into literature and film. One of the most notable appearances of a moth-like creature occurs in the movie Silence of the Lambs.

Here, the moth serves as a crucial symbol representing transformation and darkness.

In literature, moths are often used to represent themes like fleeting beauty, vulnerability, and the ephemeral nature of life.

Does The Black Witch Moth Bite or Sting?

The Black Witch Moth (Ascalapha odorata) does not bite or sting humans. Moths, in general, are harmless creatures and do not possess stinging or biting mechanisms.

The Black Witch Moth is no exception. While they might appear intimidating due to their large size, they are not a threat to humans.

The caterpillar of the Black Witch Moth (Ascalapha odorata) does not sting or bite humans either.

However, as with many caterpillars, handling them excessively or with bare hands might cause minor skin irritations in some individuals due to the tiny hairs or bristles on the caterpillar’s body.

Black Witch

Conclusion

The Black Witch Moth, with its impressive wingspan and nocturnal habits, is a captivating creature of the night. Found predominantly in the Americas, its unique features and behaviors make it stand out.

While some cultures associate it with omens of death, others see it as a symbol of good fortune. Its presence in literature and film further underscores its cultural significance.

Whether viewed with awe or superstition, the Black Witch Moth remains an intriguing subject in the world of entomology.

Footnotes

  1. https://www.colorado.edu/cumuseum/2020/10/28/black-witch-moth 2 3 4

  2. uwm.edu

  3. www.aphis.usda.gov

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about black witch moths. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Black Witch

Big Moth in Tucson
HI there Bugman,
My neighbor and I have seen a really big moth on our houses. The moth measures approximately 3 x 6 inches, maybe bigger. It looks something like the Waved Sphinx on your web site.

I wonder if you know what type of moth this is, what it eats and how will I identify it what it’s a caterpillar? Here a picture of it:
Thanks In Advance.
Phil Mortello

Hi Phil,
This is a Black Witch, Ascalapha odorata. It is a tropical and subtropical species that feeds on trees in the pea family like acacia. It is a Central American species that migrates north in the fall, but for unknown reasons as it cannot reproduce in a cold climate.

These owlet moths can fly great distances, and they are even reported from Canada. Yours is the most detailed image we have received of this species.

Letter 2 – Black Witch

Giant Moth
Hi,
Could you please help in identifying this beautiful giant month that was sleeping under my alcove a few days ago here is SE Michigan. Its wingspan was a little over 6 inches.
Thanks very much,
John Brower

Hi John,
Yours is the first Black Witch, Ascalapha odorata, we have received this year. They are a primarily tropical and sub-tropical species but the moth is capable of flying great distances in a single night.

They seek shelter in deep shade during the day. Adults can stray as far north as Canada. This is the largest Owlet Moth, Family Noctuidae, found in the U.S.

Letter 3 – Black Witch

The Black Witch
I found this moth on the tire of our car in our carport here in Yuma, AZ. Having never seen one like this before, I took it’s picture. I sent it to our local paper, The Yuma Sun, for possible publication and asked if anyone could identify it.

Katherine Krouse, page designer, sent me your web site. I immediately found several pictures of the Black Witch but none that showed how large it really is so I am sending my photo.
Fran Carlton
Yuma, AZ

Hi Fran,
Thank you for sending in your photo of a Black Witch. This is the time of year we get many letters requesting the identification of this enormous Owlet Moth. Perhaps they migrate north from Mexico to celebrate Mexican Independance Day (15 September) in the U.S.

It was once thought that the Black Witch was not a permanent resident in the U.S., but new information supports them mating and reproducing in the Southern states.

Letter 4 – Black Witch

San Diego Moth
Hello,
We found this Moth outside our home in San Diego, California. It looks like your photos of the Polyphemus Moth on your website, but a search of the internet did not show they frequent southern California. It had a 6 inch wingspan. Any help you could give would be much appreciated. Thank you for such a wonderful site!
Laura

Hi Laura,
Hogue lists the Polyphemus Moth in Los Angeles, but your moth is a black Witch, Ascalapha odorata.

Letter 5 – Black Witch

What’s this moth?
Hi! Our electricians happened upon this fellow in our garage. They measured him (or her ) at 7″ from wingtip to wingtip. Can you tell me what species it is? We live in San Diego, if that helps. Thanks!
The Casey Family

Hi Casey Family,
We haven’t gotten a photo of a Black Witch since last year. This large Noctuid Moth is a tropical species that is capable of flying great distances. They fly north from Mexico.

Letter 6 – Black Witch

Pic of Black Witch Moth with tape measure
Hi there,
I thought you might be interested in a picture I took of a female Black Witch Moth I found roosting near the ceiling of my back porch today. Thanks for the excellent info and pics you show on your site! Best regards,
Kat
San Antonio, TX

Hi Kat,
Thanks for sending us your beautiful photograph of a female Black Witch Moth. Females can be distinguished from the males because of the light undulating stripes on their wings.

Letter 7 – Black Witch

What is it?
Can you please tell me what this is? It was on my porch last night in San Antonio, TX. It is fairly large, ~ 6″ across or better. Thanks.
J. Edwards

Hi J.,
This is a Black Witch Moth, Ascalapha odorata, one of the Noctuid Moths. These moths are quite common in Mexico and points south, and there have been sitings for years in the states near the Mexican border as well as in Florida and the Caribbean.

Black Witch Moths are very strong fliers and they have been reported as far north as Canada. For more information on the Black Witch, see BugGuide and associated links.

Letter 8 – Black Witch

Large Moth
I don’t know if you can help identify a species from Costa Rica. A visitor came in last night to keep me company.I measured, and this guy had close to a six inch wingspan. I tried to do a little research on the web, but couldn’t find anything specific. Then I came across your excellent site. I wonder if you could help identify it? Thanks,
Doug

Hi Doug,
This is a Black Witch, a large noctuid moth that can also be found in North America.

Letter 9 – Black Witch

Black Witch Moth
I see you have a few pictures of the Black Witch Moth. This one may not be “planted” on a beautiful piece of bark but, I thought the details that were caught with my camera were awesome. Enjoy!
Trisha Valentine
Fort Myers, FL

Hi Trisha,
Your Black Witch photo is quite beautiful. Thanks for sending it to our site.

Letter 10 – Black Witch

Possible Black Witch in Central Texas
The attached photo was taken this evening well before sun set. Based on your identification of Phil Mortello’s photo from Tucson I am think this is a Black Witch? True? It measured a hair shy of 5″.
Dave Collins
nearby Johnson City, TX

Hi Dave,
You are absolutely correct. We usually get numerous reports of Black Witch moths in September and October.

Letter 11 – Black Witch

Please ID theses two moths
Hi Bugman!
What a great site y’all have! I just love seeing all the wonderful critters and learning a little about them. I have two moths that I hope you can ID for me. The 1st (the 3 entitled MOTHRA) is from the deck of the Carnival cruise ship Elation. It was the wee hours of the morning in August of last year and we were under way in the Caribbean when this beauty fluttered by.

I followed it to an outside cooking location where it landed and seemed to be resting for a while. The coloration on this moth is just incredible and it was fairly large also, probably 5″ across. The 2nd (MOTH & MOTH I) is from Key West earlier this year.

He was hanging out inside one of my favorite hangouts and I thought he was pretty cool looking. I have also included a pic of a Green Lynx spider enjoying a little Japanese snack. I identified the spider at your terrific site and since it is your favorite I thought I’d share. Thanks Bugman!
Scott Lovett
Charlotte, NC

Hi Scott,
Mothra is a Black Witch, a relatively common Central and South American moth that often strays into the U.S. even being reported as far north as Canada. The second moth looks like possibly a female Io Moth.

Letter 12 – Black Witch

Here’s a bug for you… What is it?
Any insight would be appreciated! It was rather large, saw it in Big Bend National Park. I have other pictures for comparison, but this pic along with the walking stick in the same frame should give you a good idea of how large this insect is:
Stingrey

Hi Stingrey,
This is a Black Witch Moth, a tropical species that flies north in summer and fall, often reaching as far as Canada. Most of the numerous images of Black Witch Moths we have received over the years have been taken on walls after the moths were attracted to lights. Your image is the first in a natural environment.

Letter 13 – Black Witch

Two Moths from the Yucatan Penninsula
Hi,
I just wanted to know if you could identify these two moths that my family found and photographed while we were on vacation in Cancun. When I saw the first one, I thought it was a big hole in the wall! My mom found the second one under a depressed light in another wall. Thanks a lot.
Sincerely,
Bug Lover Back from Mexico

Hi Bug Lover,
Mexican insects are pretty amazing. Your first moth is a Black Witch, Erebus odora. These large moths are very strong fliers, and though they do not breed in the U.S., they sometimes stray as far north as Canada. The other moth is a Sphinx Moth, but we are not sure of the species.

Letter 14 – Black Witch

Moth found in San Francisco, CA late Sept
Sat, Oct 25, 2008 at 8:47 AM
Our Neighbor found this moth in San Francisco in late Sept and brought it to my 9 yr old daughter for identification. She and I have been trying to match it up with moths from various sites and books but have been unsuccessful. Can you tell us what this is?
Sierra needs to know
San Francisco, CA

Black Witch
Black Witch

Hi Sierra,
This beauty is a Black Witch, a Central American Noctuid Moth that migrates north each year.  This migration, which could take specimens as far north as Canada, is unexplainable as the Black Witch does not breed except possibly in the extreme southern U.S.

Letter 15 – Black Witch

Giant moth on my screen
November 17, 2009
I was headed to work and found this guy on my screen porch. He was about 6-8 inches in wingspan.
matt
south florida

Black Witch
Black Witch

Hi Matt,
This is a Black Witch, a large neotropical moth that often migrates north.

Letter 16 – Black Witch

Polyphemus Moth ?
May 28, 2010
Many, many thanks for the prompt reply and posting of my “Beautiful Green Bug” (Slant-winged Katydid). Your website is fantastic and your love of all our “critters” is evident. It is refreshing to have the privilege of communicating with individuals, such as yourselves.

I’m going to send a donation for your site, next week, when my retirement check comes in. I’m sending you two more pictures of a moth. Pictures were taken on my shed door the end of April 2010, during the evening. This guy was beautiful but did not move much. He was quite hign on the door which necessitated me to use the zoom on my camera.

One picture is with flash and one without — take your pick. After the pictures, I left him alone and later on in the evening he departe d. I believe him to be a Polyphemus silk moth of the Saturniidae family — please correct me if I’m wrong. Again, I’m thrilled to have found your site and humbled by your obvious love of nature and efforts to preserve “Her.” Many, many thanks.
Curt
Tulsa, Oklahoma

Black Witch

Hi Again Curt,
Thanks so much for your kind words, and you are under no obligation to contribute a donation, especially if you are on a fixed income.  Donations are no guarantee that we will respond to questions.  Mostly it is a matter of luck which letters we answer and post, but we do try to find unusual creatures, wonderful photos, or interesting letters in an effort to keep What’s That Bug? vital. 

This is a Black Witch, Ascalapha odorata, a tropical and subtropical species that is common in Mexico.  The Black Witch is a very powerful flier, and there are documentations going back 100 years of sightings as far north as Canada.  In recent years, perhaps due to global warming, or perhaps due to the cultivation of its food plant the acacia, the Black Witch has begun to breed in southern states. 

Your specimen is a female because of the presence of the pale wing bands.  Your sighting came at an unusual time.  According to BugGuide:  “The northward migration out of Mexico is triggered by Mexico’s rainy season which typically starts in early June and lasts through October.

Most US records are from June-August, with a considerable number of records from September-Novermber. Very few US records from December-May.

Authors

  • Daniel Marlos

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

5 thoughts on “Black Witch Moth: All You Need to Know in a Nutshell”

  1. I live in Northern Colorado, (close to Ft. Collins) and have one of these beauties relaxing in my eaves. Is he just visiting, or can we expect him to settle here and start a family? if so, what, if any damage can we expect from the larvae? And what would be reasonable for rent? This is a high-rent-district and the squirrels are bigots and asking for rent control! Just askin’!

    Reply
    • According to bugGuide, the caterpillars feed on: “Recorded host genera: Acacia, Albizia, Cassia, Ebenopsis (Pithecellobium), Gymnocladus, Prosopis, Robinia, Samanea (Fabaceae).” Black Witches have been reported flying north out of Mexico for more than 100 years, flying as far north as Canada, but it is not until recently that they have been reported as naturalizing and reproducing in the US. Ohio Birds and Biodiversity reports the northernmost spawning record, so it is possible that your individual may lay eggs.

      Reply
  2. I found a very battered brown moth in the grass. I live at 5500′ elevation in southern Montana.
    It has a 6″ wingspread and the wing is 2 1/4″wide. There is a bluish “eyespot an inch 1/4from the body center. The back wing has 3 “arches” marks on its lower edgeThere are some wavy lines across the wings.

    Reply
    • Your description does match that of a Black Witch. They have been reported to migrate as far north as Canada, though migration is probably not the right word for what a Black Witch does as they do not return back to Mexico.

      Reply

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