Moth of the Week: Death’s Head Hawkmoth

Meet the Death’s Head Hawkmoth, which refers to any three species from the family Sphingidae and the genus Acherontia, A. atropos, A. styx, and A. lachesis.
These critters have earned a relatively bad reputation due to the vaguely skull-shaped marking on their backs. They are large animals, with imagoes having wingspans of about five inches, and can be found throughout Europe, the UK, and Africa, depending on which species you’re looking at.

Caterpillars are very pretty, and like adults, can grow to be quite large (12-13 cm). They feed on a variety of host plants, mostly from the families Solanaceae, Bignoniaceae, Verbenaceae and Oleaceae. They go through five instars (moults) before they are ready to pupate. Caterpillars can sometimes be pests, especially on potato farms, but they are easily controlled. Pupae are long and have ridges across their backs, although they are hard to find because they bury underground to pupate. They cannot overwinter.

Adults are also amazing. They mainly feed on nectar, but they love honey. Often, they will infiltrate honeybee hives to steal some of that delicious, delicious honey. They have a lot of ways to get past honeybee guards. For one, they have a thick cuticle over their bodies to shield them from stings. Their clawed feet help them easily climb around the hive, and they can mimic the scent of bees. Some scientists even theorize that they may have a resistance to bee venom. Death’s Head Hawkmoths are unique in that they are not silent animals, like most moths are. By pushing air through their proboscis, these moths can emit a cute albeit startling squeak when disturbed. They also flash their bright abdomens to ward off predators.

Death’s Head Hawkmoths play a prominent part in popular culture. They were integrated into the plot and poster of the famous movieThe Silence of the Lambs.Edgar Allen Poe also wrote a story about his encounter with one of these moths,The Sphinx.Bram Stoker, author ofDracula,mentioned them in her book. One legend goes that the moths first showed up in Britain after the execution of Charles I. In fact, they’re evn named after the three Moirai from Greek Mythology, beings who controlled the threads of life.

Despite their negative connotations, these moths are harmless and interesting. If you ever happen to come across one, enjoy its presence! Maybe you can even get it to squeak.