Ascalapha odorata – also known as the black witch moth – is perhaps one of the most notable species of moths associated with tropical America. Not only are they large, ubiquitous and beautiful – culturally the species is associated with many local beliefs and superstitions. Some cultures in Latin America associate these moths with bad luck, illness, disease, witchcraft/black magic or death. Thankfully, in reality, it is a rather fascinating, and harmless insect. This article is one of the first and only that reveals their complete life cycle on the internet! While the larvae and host plants are known to science, articles depicting them in detail are scarce.
Ascalapha odorata are very large moths; females can have wingspans of over 20cm (200mm); males tend to be a little bit smaller. The male and female are easy to tell apart, since the females have a white, pearlescent band that runs near the submarginal line. Males on the contrary, are uniformly greyish. They are common and widespread in tropical America; from the southern U.S.A (Florida, Texas) to Central America (Mexico, etc) – all the way down to the Atlantic rainforest in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. The species is also encountered in the Carribean.
The moths are found in a wide variety of landscapes, although they appear to be the most common in tropical forests and tropical shrublands. That being said, the moths are able to fly long distances with ease – and thus they can show up in suburbs and parks too in some occasions. In fact, they are so skilled at flying long distances that the moths have been recorded up to New York and Canada – places where the climate is wholly unsuitable for this tropical insect (except in warm summer months!). There is no evidence they can reproduce at these northern latitudes, nor are they able to survive the colder autumn and winters – – and them migrating up to Canada or the Northern U.S.A could be considered a ‘happy accident’. They seem to need atleast tropical to subtropical climates (reproduction does occur in places such as Florida, etc).
Ascalapha odorata is very much a frugivore. They are specifically attracted to decaying, fermenting fruit. In its natural habitat, the moth is easy to observe by putting out rotting bananas (they seem to be very fond of banana in particular) and checking them at midnight with a flashlight. Other sugar rich, fermenting fruits should also work. Attracted by the volatile alcohol, they use their long proboscis to imbibe the sugary fruit juices.
The larva of Ascaphala odorata is a little bit of an enigma. First of all, they are rarely observed in the wild, despite the adult moths being very common.
This is due to the fact that the larvae are exclusively nocturnal! During the day, the larvae often descend from the vegetation, down to ground level, only to hide in leaf litter, or even under rocks near the host plant! In some occasions, they choose to stay high in the trees, pressing themselves tightly against the tree bark (their camouflage is amazing!). They avoid light completely, and often crawl inside cracks or crevices in order to hide. The larvae only expose themselves in darkness!
At night, the larvae crawl up to the crown of the trees, or the tip of the branches of the shrubs or vegetation, to feed on the younger leaf shoots. Mature larvae can feed on mature foliage, but still strongly prefer young leaves.
Young larvae however, seem to exclusively(!) feed on soft, young parts of the plants; including flower buds, leaf buds or young shoots. They are even able to hide inside flower buds while consuming the flower from the inside. This makes laboratory breeding difficult; the young larvae reject even their best food plants in captivity if no young leaves are available.
In the wild, the larvae mainly feed on Fabaceae. This includes Caesalpinia, Robinia, Inga, Albizia, Gymnocladus, Senna, Acacia, Pithecellobium, Uncaria, Ebenopsis, and more! Their most important food plants appear to be Acacia, Albizia and Gymnocladus; although this is a generalisation, due to them using different local host plants throughout their vast range distribution. Some reports mention the larvae can feed on non-Fabaceae such as on Ficus, Diospyros and Mangifera indica but I have not personally verified this.
The moths are continuously brooded.
- Difficulty rating: Hard! In fact, very few people before me have managed to breed it. The difficulty is due to A) larvae often requiring leaf buds and young shoots almost exclusively; thus one would need a large supply of host plant B) larvae being subceptible to stress and artificial light and C) larvae prefer high humidity and warmth (tropical conditions) that may be harder to simulate in captivity outside of the native range and D) while adults do mate in captivity, they prefer to have a lot of flight space – I doubt they would feel comfortable in the small pop-up cages typically used for silkmoths. Only some of the worlds most experienced breeders can rear this moth.
- Rearing difficulty: 9/10 (From egg to pupa)
- Pairing difficulty: 7.5/10 (Achieving copulations)
- Host plants: Very polyphagous on numerous Fabaceae! This includes Caesalpinia, Robinia, Inga, Albizia, Gymnocladus, Senna, Acacia, Pithecellobium, Uncaria, Ebenopsis, and more! Some (unverified) sources also mention a few non-Fabaceae plants. While I am sceptical about these they are worth mentioning; Ficus sp., Diospyros sp, and even Mangifera indica are mentioned as host plants in literature (not sure if true, but could be..).
- Natural range: Resident in the Southern U.S.A (Texas, Florida), Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Bolovia, Panama, all of the Carribean, Suriname, French Guyane, Paraguay, Uruguay. Also recorded as a stray migrant (but not a resident) throughout most of the U.S.A up to Canada.
- Polyphagous: Yes, it is open minded when it comes to feeding on various Fabaceae.
- Generations: Multivoltine (more or less continuously brooded )
- Family: Erebidae (Erebinae) – Witch Moths
- Pupation: Naked pupa in very mininalistic ‘ cocoon’ spun in leaf litter
- Prefered climate: Hot and humid! This is a fully tropical insect. Lives in tropical forests of many kinds, from low to medium level elevations.
- Special notes: The best way to breed this species is in their native range. Not only is legally exporting it hard, eggs often hatch too fast for shipment, and pupae are too sensitive for shipment. Furthermore, one would need a great supply of young host plant shoots to sustain the larvae, and recreate tropical conditions. The best option would be breeding in a tropical greenhouse.
- Estimated wingspan: 140mm-210mm (this species has a lot of size variation; but large individuals can be over 20cm)
- Binomial name: Ascalapha odorata (Linnaeus, 1758)
Since I get a lot of questions about this species from South American readers; some keywords in different languages to help people find this article:
Ciclo de vida da mariposa bruxa negra / Ecologica da mariposa-bruxa /
Ciclo de vida de la mariposa bruja negra / mariposa-bruxa oruga
Captive breeding of Ascalapha odorata is rarely every done! This is because it is considered quite tricky; in fact this article is one of the first and only caresheets of this nature on the internet. Together, we will go through the required steps, and life cycle!
The eggs of Ascalapha odorata are incredibly small (about 2mm) – round, and grey. They hatch incredibly fast; in hot weather of 25C+ we can expect to see babies in just about 4-5 days time! They are best incubated in petri dishes and kept humid. The L1 hatchlings run incredibly fast, like Geometridae.
The most important thing about rearing them is to give them young shoots, or leaf-buds. In fact, the first few instars (L1-L3) generally refuse to touch mature leaves of their host plants. Therefore, it is recommended to have a supply of young saplings, or young shoots of plant.
Yes, that’s right! The first instars seem to more or less EXCLUSIVELY feed on young leaves, and would starve if given mature leaves; even if it is from their preferred host plants(!). This was certainly the case with Inga and Albizia, the host plants used in this article – L1 to L3 atleast appear to be obligate young shoots/leaf bud feeders on these host plants; and perhaps on many other host plants too!
While it is possible to raise the larvae of host plant cuttings, many of their food plants tend to wilt quickly when cut. Much more convenient is to rear the larvae on live host plant; some potted Acacia, Albizia or Inga is a great idea. Release the larvae and let them live freely on the plant! Make sure to place the plant inside an enclosure. It also saves the stress of trying to catch and relocate the very well camouflaged and fast-running larvae of A. odorata.
The first instars grow very rapidly – and if fed well, they will molt until the second instar (L2).
In the third instar (L3) the larvae become more colorful. They also gain all their prolegs! Their colour is hard to describe for this instar is highly variable. Larvae tend to have creamy, sand colored lines that run along their flank, and a grey base color with variable yellowish patches. This instar appears to be hairy (whereas L4 and L5 have little to no hairs).
From L3 and beyond, the larvae become more able to eat mature leaves from the host plants instead of young shoots. However, it depends on the host plant – the group reared on Inga exclusively fed on young shoots until pupation, refusing to touch older leaves. The Albizia feeding group became able to feed on more mature leaf after L3.
In L4, the caterpillars become less hairy. The 4th instar (L4) seems to strongly resemble the 5th instar (L5). The main difference is that L4 is smaller and less dark .
In all life stages, the larvae are solitary. In fact; they seem to hate the presence of other larvae (do not overcrowd). They also avoid light, and most of their feeding activity happens at night in the darkness. To rear them succesfully, make sure to keep them in a dark room at night; humidity should be high. Touching them makes them twitch, or regurgitate their gut contents. During the day, larvae burrow in leaf litter, or hide between the leaves. Fully grown larvae grow up to 10cm although they tend to be smaller in captivity than in the wild.
Rearing setup: To rear this species, I used small pop-up cages for insects. Inside these cages, I placed 8 to 15 saplings of host plants (in this case, I used Inga sp. and Albizia sp. saplings). I watered the plants regularily to provide moisture for the plants. I sprayed the enclosured several times a week with water to give larvae a chance to drink and keep them humid.
Just as rarely photographed as the larvae, are the pupae of Ascalapha odorata. The pupae, however, look typical for any large Erebinae; they are slender, and reminiscent of a large Noctuidae pupae.
Ascalapha odorata are capable of spinning ‘cocoons’; however the cocoons are extremely minimalistic, and consist of dead leaves and soil being strung together with a few strings of silk (similar to Catocala). In some cases, larvae will not produce silk at all and burrow in (leaf) litter or soil to pupate.
The pupae of A. odorata hatch in 3.5 to 5 weeks time it appears (the warmer, the faster). They can be kept in a layer of leaf litter, but also in humid vermiculite. Important is that they are kept moist, to prevent them from drying out! And then finally, magnificent large moths will appear.
In captivity, the moth thrive only in large enclosures – such as greenhouses or butterfly houses. It is also possible to breed then indoors, if one dedicates a whole room to the adults – or a space of atleast 3 by 2 metres (and preferably 2 metres tall). When provided rotting fruit, especially bananas, the imagoes will feed themselves – they are highy attracted to overripe bananas.
If fruit can not be provided, the moths can also feed on sugar water in captivity. Mix 50% sugar and 50% water – make sure to stir – and dip the proboscis of the moths in a bottle cap, or the lid of a jar filled with the liquid. If sufficiently hungry the moths will begin to drink.
One of the more interesting traits of Ascalapha odorata is the purple iridescent sheen they have – it can only be observed from certain angles. The exact function is unknown to me; but it is certainly beautiful. In some occasions the moths appear almost purple or blue.
Pairing Ascalapha odorata in captivity is not easy either. The moths require generous amounts of space – I am not sure what the minimum is, but atleast a 3m x 2m x 2m (l, w, h) is what I use. Make sure to provide them dark surfaces! The moths are sensitive about being properly camouflaged and prefer to rest on objects with a dark background. They often refuse to settle on white surfaces! Pairing is hard to observe, but definitely happens in captivity.
It appears that males have significantly shorter lifespans than females.
After pairing, females can produce hundreds (over time, they can lay over 500 if kept alive for long!) of eggs. Egg laying in captivity is very easy; female will scatter eggs all over their enclosures. In the wild, they deposit eggs on the bark of trees, in particular in cracks in an almost Catocala-like fashion. Congratulations on breeding a species that very few have ever managed to raise, using this very first caresheet and lifecycle on the internet!
This was one of the first comprehensive articles on the internet that describes the life history of the black witch moth (Ascalapha odorata!). This article was published December 21st, 2022 by entomologist Bart Coppens in collaboration with Reserva Ecologica de Guapiacu (REGUA) In Brazil.
REGUA is a natural reserve in Brazil, that sponsors my work. They provided me with a laboratory(!), many plant saplings for feeding the caterpillars(!), and a flight space for moths(!). Without REGUA, this article would not exist.
Despite being common, the life history and ecology of this insect is (and remains) very poorly known, in many regards! This articles provides a basal faunistic framework to supplement any future research on this species. It is, perhaps (one of the) first of its kind. I would like to thank REGUA for hosting me and my research; Jorge Bizarro for being a friend, a guide and mentor in Brazil; Alan Martin for encouraging me in many ways and facilitating my stay and my ideas – and my readers (that’s you!) for endlessly supporting me. Me and my work have always been demonetised, and it was also the donations of many fans, viewers and supporters that made this article possible. You can support the mission too, and help entomological research! Together, we can make more insect life cycles available world wide (click here!).
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Citations: Coppens, B. (2022); Written by Bart Coppens; based on a real life breeding experience [for citations in literature and publications]
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