The Black Witch

Years ago our family lived for a time in Costa Rica. Our electricity-less, palm-frond-roofed living quarters had an outside shower, which we all loved. A trip to the “bath house” was often the naturalist’s candy store; columns of leaf-cutter ants shuffling along with leaves to feed their fungus farms, toucans with rainbow beaks chattering away at our presence, an algae-covered sloth sloooooowly making its way back up the tree, a stealthy snake slinking back to its burrow under the house- all, an endless delight.

The evening cacophony of sounds heralded the appearance of the nocturnal critters- harmless whip scorpions hunting along the walls, a flutter of bats dipping along the river surface- curious wonders galore!

One night, while showering in the dark, I felt something HUGE flutter up against my face. Startled, I batted it away. Again, it came back… again and again it banged against my naked body. (What’s this?! A local vampire bat dropping by for a drink?!) I lunged for my flashlight and scanned the dark slab of wet rock. Nothing. Suddenly, my small circle of light fell on the LARGEST moth that I had ever seen! I tried to catch it, but by the time I came back with my net it was gone. Asking around the next day I learned that these gigantic, banana-eating huge moths can have a wingspan up to 6.5 inches (17cm)! The locals call them Mariposa de la Muerte - Butterfly of the Dead; AKA: The Black Witch.

You may be wondering- Why do I write about this grand moth, native from Central America up through the Midwest United States, here in a Hawai’i centric blog? Because they also live here on the Big Island! (Lucky us!) Like so many organisms here, this non-native, but now naturalized moth, was somehow introduced. How and when remains a mystery.

The Mariposa de la Muerte has a reputation of bringing bad luck or good luck, depending on the local culture. The mythology has as large a range as the species. Throughout Meso-America they are associated with death; if there is a house with a sick person and the moth enters, that person will die. Some areas say that the moth must first visit all the corners of the house before death arrives. In Jamaica, they are associated with evil spirits coming to bedevil the living.

On a lighter note, in some parts of Mexico, people say that if this moth flies over a person’s head, that person will go bald! Maybe that’s why so many people wear hats?

On the positive side, in the Bahamas- according to my friend Mark Berman who makes it a point to know such things- they are referred to as Moneybats. So named because if they land on you, you will come into money. In Hawai’i, we have a little of both bad and good; if a loved one dies, they will come back in the form of the moth to say goodbye to the survivors. That is sweet.

While appearing dark and colorless outside, under a light one can see that they are indeed quite colorful in a subdued way. Their color is caused by reflected and refracted light bouncing off the minute scales that cover their wings. In my childhood, the legend was that if you rubbed all the “dust” off a butterfly’s wings that they wouldn’t be able to fly. This is not true, as they would be able to fly perfectly well - at least until it rains. With the loss of these scales much of the wings’ waterproofing is compromised. Some scientists think that the scales may be helpful in escaping a spider’s web.

So if you find yourself wandering a path in Hawai’i in the evening and something HUGE flutters up against you, don’t be alarmed. You may be coming into some money!


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