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Winged Migration

Is that a bat? Huge moths from Mexico have made an impression on Texans.

By Tom Harvey

The gigantic black witch moth (Ascalapha odorata) is enjoying a breakout year in 2004. High rains, a mild winter and prevailing southerly winds seem to have driven the moths north through Texas from Mexico, with multiple sightings along the coast.

“The sightings this summer have been extraordinary,” said Mike Quinn, entomologist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “They are truly off the charts.”

Quinn began receiving almost daily sighting reports — with as many as five sightings occuring in a single day — in late May. Black witch moths were reported widely in Texas as well in Arizona, New Mexico, Louisiana, California and Nevada. By midsummer, two sightings were reported as far north as Kansas.

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.

Black witch moths are some of the largest moths in the insect world and the largest in the United States. They belong 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. The female is distinguished from the male by a pale median band or stripe running across her wings.

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 lights and streetlights, as well as to tree sap and rotting fruit.

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