Monday, 18 June 2012

The Death’s-head Hawk Moth is a very strange insect

Death's Head Hawk Moth

You may have seen the Death’s-head Hawk Moth (Acherontia atropos) in Silence of the Lambs. Because of its scary appearance and reputation this very large and very strange insect was included in publicity for this very successful thriller starring Sir Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster
You see, this massive hawk moth has the spooky image of a skull on its thorax, and its horizontally banded body reminds us of the ribs of a human skeleton. Add to this the fact that the Death’s-head hawk Moth can squeak when alarmed and that its huge caterpillar can make clicking sounds, and it is not surprising that there are many superstitions surrounding this insect.

These moths are migrants from southern Europe and North Africa and sometimes arrive in the UK, where although it’s a very rarely seen species, it sometimes breeds and lays its eggs on potato plants. The Death’s Head Hawk Moth also lives in Tenerife and on the other Canary Islands.

 Death’s Head Hawk Moth caterpillars can also eat plants in the Solanaceae or nightshade family and often feed on Datura species such as the poisonous Thornapple (Datura stramonium). Plants in the Verbena family, including the subtropical shrub Lantana (Lantana crocea), can also be eaten, as can the Tulip Tree (Spathodea campanulata) and other shrubs in the Bignoniaceae.

Death's Head Hawk Moth caterpillar (yellow version)

The finger-length caterpillars come in three different colour variations. There is a brown form that matches the colouring of twigs and woody stems, a yellow caterpillar with purplish stripes on its sides and a green larva with striped sides too. If disturbed the click their mandibles.

Death's Head Hawk Moth caterpillar (brown type)

The caterpillars pupate in soil and leaf litter and hatch out after a few weeks in warm conditions. In Britain it is too cold in the winter months for the pupae to survive and so the moth is not resident in the UK. 

Pupa of the Death's Head Hawk Moth

The adult moths only have short proboscises so cannot feed from many types of flowers and instead they take tree sap and also steal honey from beehives. It is said that the moth’s scent deters the bees from attaching them when the insects are carrying out a raid. The hawk moths squeak when feeding on honey too. Perhaps they make this noise because they are enjoying their stolen food or maybe to scare off the bees? 

You can find out much more about hawk moths in the excellent book Hawk Moths of the World.

Copyright © 2012 Steve Andrews. All Rights Reserved.


Chris Miller said...

Ok i grow datura in Maryland so does death head moths come around this way cause id like to know wat is pollenating these huge flowers. I do some myself but thats just incase they Don't by nature .i cant find too much answers on this plant. Just that if u eat it u could die .go crazy or so fourth but anyway .if anyone reads my rambling please contact me at millerashley420at gmail. Com. And i need to get a copy if the green bards book cause it looks like a datura plant on the cover i did see the original book but it was black and white and at the time i was on my way to learning about plants and how to live off the land. But i let someone see the book and someone liked it a little more and i never seen it again

Steve Andrews said...

Thanks for your comments, Chris, and yes, it is a datura on my book cover. Death's Head hawks can't pollinate flowers cos they have too short tongues but other hawkmoths will!

Malcolm Soh said...

My wife may have found one in our garden, see here: perhaps you can confirm the ID please.

Tiger1948 said...

Thank for this page - through this page we established what is the caterpillar that we found wondering on our patio in Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and captured on a video clip. WE ish we can share with you but it doesn't look possible on this site.

Malcolm Soh said...

You can post videos at

Unknown said...

I live in missouri, usa last summer while cutting out a flowering shrub planted at the base of a small tree with a hacksaw I think I disturbed one of these Death's Head Hawkmoths. And it bit me on the back. At first it looked like a large Horsefly. But it had a patch of white on the back of it's head that almost looked like feather to me. After I brushed it off it flew away. Well it came back later, it had what looked like black and white spotted wings and it buzzed like a Horsefly. It was bobbing up and down. When it landed on the ground near me I went in the house and watched it. It was kind of scary. It appeared to stare at me. Could they have been brought over to the US like the Asian beetles and the killer bees?