Scientists Seek Public Help To Track Black Witch Moths

Tom Harvey, 512-389-4453,

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AUSTIN, Texas — Due to numerous daily reported sightings from Texas and other surrounding states, 2004 appears to be a breakout year for the black witch moth (Ascalapha odorata).

"The sightings this summer have been extraordinary," Mike Quinn, TPWD entomologist said. "They are truly off the charts. I wouldn’t be surprised to receive a sighting report from Canada within three weeks."

Black witch moths are some of the largest moths in the insect world and the largest in the United States. It belongs to the family Noctuidae, the largest family within the order Lepidoptera, with more than 2,900 species in the United States and Canada.

"This dark brown moth with a six-inch wingspan often startles people when first encountered as it somewhat resembles a bat," Quinn said. He also commented that the female is distinguished from the male as she has a pale median band (or stripe) running through her wings.

Black witch moths are a migratory species found abundantly throughout the New World tropics. They migrate north from Mexico through Texas primarily in June and sometimes reach destinations as far north as southern Canada and Alaska.

Quinn has been receiving sighting reports almost daily since late May and sometimes as many as five sightings in one day. Black witch moths have been reported widely in Texas as well in Arizona, California, Louisiana, Nevada, and New Mexico. Two sightings have even been reported as far north as Kansas.

Most of the people reporting these sightings commented that it was the first time they had seen such an insect after living in the same location for many years.

These moths like to perch in open garages or under the eaves of houses during the day. They are also readily attracted to house and street lights, tree sap, rotting fruit and alcohol.

Black witches are not considered pests as their smooth gray caterpillars feed on woody legumes such as mesquite, ebony, acacia and cassia. Although harmless to people, they are sometimes regarded by the superstitious as a harbinger of death. According to folk legend, when there is sickness in a house and this moth enters, the sick person dies. According to more recent superstitions, if this moth lands above your door then you will win the lottery.

To help scientists better understand this year’s breakout and migratory patterns, anyone who sees any black witch moths is urged to send a detailed report about the sighting, including date, location, condition of the moth, and number of individuals seen. Please include a comment on the prevailing weather conditions as well.

Send sighting information by mail to Mike Quinn, Invertebrate Biologist, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, 3000 S. I-35, Suite 100, Austin, TX 78744, e-mail, or phone (512) 912-7059.