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Don’t look now, but the Black Witch moth is lurking quietly in your house

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Lee Steele
Lee Steele
Lee Steele is the founding director of Roof Cat Media and has published Yucatán Magazine and other titles since 2012. Sign up for our weekly newsletters, so our best stories will appear in your inbox every Monday.
A Black Witch moth appears on a mosquito screen in a Centro home. Photo: Maggie Cale

Why are we always startled when the Black Witch moth makes its yearly return?

These oversized visitors come with the territory, and their reputation precedes them. Their Mayan name is x-mahan-nah, which means “house-borrower,” “habit of borrowing houses,” or “may I borrow your house?”

But today, they’re perhaps a tad unfairly dubbed the mariposa de la muerte or “butterfly of death.” Not that they’re out to kill you, but many think their appearance is ominous, perhaps even foreshadowing someone’s demise. Or maybe it’s the embodiment of a dead relative staying for an unexpected visit.

Why such dark associations with an innocent black moth? Perhaps because their appearance is a little unsettling. They perch high on a wall or ceiling, remaining for hours, silently judging you. Have you put on a little weight? Are you going to wear that? They don’t say it out loud, but you know these shady creatures are thinking it.

Aside from throwing shade, they are huge compared to most other insects. They can measure up to eight inches from end to end when their wings are fully extended. They are commonly confused in the dark with bats, which only provokes more queasiness.

A Black Witch moth the size of a human hand. Photo: Houston Arboretum & Nature Center

The mighty moths also appear in central Mexico, where they are known by their Nahuatl name, mictlanpapalotl, or “butterfly from the country of the dead.” In parts of Mexico, some people joke that if one flies over someone’s head, the person will lose his hair, which to some is even worse than death.

In Colombia, they are thought to be sorceresses who died, but failing to enter Heaven, returned to Earth as Black Witch moths.

But in the Bahamas, they are considered good luck. If one lands on you, it means money is coming. In Texas, if one appears in your home, it’s a reason to run to the H-E-B for a Powerball ticket.

Experts advise you not to kill or capture them because they join the bees in the act of pollination. Just wait them out. They will be on their way as the rainy season gets more intense.

A Black Witch moth in the Bahamas. Photo: Mike Scott via Flickr

Black Witch moths are more aerodynamic than silk or gypsy moths, making them strong, almost bat-like flyers. They fly at night, high and fast, and minor obstacles like the Gulf of Mexico don’t deter them – they are regulars on ships and off-shore oil rigs. According to one source, a Black Witch moth can fly from the Rio Grande to Maine in three weeks, according to researchers at the University of Wisconsin.

From mid-summer until early fall, the Black Witch moth is likely to follow a hurricane or jet stream across the Gulf of Mexico and into the United States, according to PJ Liesch at the university’s Department of Entomology Insect Diagnostic Lab in Madison. Once ashore, they often keep traveling.

The university’s field station in Milwaulkee previously reported the arrival of a worn-out moth far from its normal range of South America, Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean.

“Black Witch moths have been found throughout North America as far north as Alaska, Churchill, and Newfoundland, and in South America as far south as Argentina, and they have traveled to Bermuda and Africa,” the field station reports.

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