Deaths Head Hawk Moth: Quick Guide for Curious Minds

The Deaths Head Hawk Moth is a fascinating species of moth known for its unique appearance and intriguing behaviors. These intriguing moths have a striking skull-like pattern on their thorax, which has led to a certain level of mystique and cultural significance.

As members of the family Sphingidae, Deaths Head Hawk Moths are usually large and heavy-bodied, with a long, pointed abdomen. They exhibit a captivating ability to hover near flowers, feeding on nectar using their long proboscis, or “tongue” (source). This skill, combined with their rapid wingbeats, allows them to resemble hummingbirds while in flight.

Physical Characteristics and Identification

Wingspan and Body Structure

The Death’s Head Hawk Moth is a large and heavy-bodied moth with an impressive wingspan. Here are some of its features:

  • Wingspan: ranges from 90 to 130 mm.
  • Thorax: broad and hairy.
  • Abdomen: long and pointed.

These moths are known for their ability to hover near flowers while feeding on nectar through their long proboscis. Their forewings are generally long and pointed, while their antennae gradually widen and then narrow again towards the tip1.

Skull-Like Marking

One of the most striking features of this moth is the skull-like mark on its thorax. This marking varies between different species within the Death’s Head Hawk Moth family:

  • Some species: faint and small markings.
  • Other species: large and distinct skull patterns.

Here’s a comparison table of two different Death’s Head Hawk Moth species:

Species Wingspan Skull-like Mark Size
Acherontia atropos 90-130mm Large and distinct
Acherontia styx 100-120mm Smaller and fainter

This skull-like mark, combined with the large wingspan and heavy body structure, make the Death’s Head Hawk Moth an easily recognizable and fascinating creature.

Behavior and Biology

Squeaking and Odor

The death’s-head hawkmoth is known for its ability to produce a squeaking sound. This is done by forcing air out of their spiracles (tiny holes along the sides of the moth’s body) and using their mandibles to produce the sound. This unique squeaking behavior can help deter predators.

In addition to squeaking, the moth’s caterpillar stage releases a strong, unpleasant odor from its body to discourage predators.

Nocturnal Habits

The death’s-head hawkmoth is primarily a nocturnal insect, meaning it is mostly active during the night. It has evolved several adaptations to aid in its nighttime behavior.

  • Eyes: The moth’s large, compound eyes allow it to see better in low light conditions.
  • Camouflage: The moth’s wing patterns aid in helping it blend into its environment while at rest during the day.

Some key features of the death’s-head hawkmoth life stages include:

  • Caterpillar: The larvae stage of the moth where it feeds and grows before transforming into a pupa.
  • Pupa: The transitional stage between the caterpillar and the adult moth, where it undergoes significant physical changes.
Feature Caterpillar Adult Moth
Primary activity Eating and growing Mating and laying eggs
Defense mechanism Producing odor Squeaking and camouflage
Food source Plant leaves Flower nectar

In conclusion, understanding the death’s-head hawkmoth’s biology and behavior can help us appreciate the adaptability and resilience of this unique insect that has captured the fascination of people for centuries.

Life Cycle and Reproduction

Caterpillar Stage

The life of a Death’s Head Hawk Moth begins as a caterpillar. These caterpillars are unique due to their:

  • Bright coloration
  • Distinct tail horn at the rear end

Caterpillars feed on plant leaves, specifically:

  • Potato plants
  • Tobacco plants
  • Nightshade family plants

During this stage, they grow and molt several times.

Pupation

Next, caterpillars pupate, which involves:

  • Forming a pupal case
  • Undergoing metamorphosis

Pupal cases are either:

  • Made of silk
  • Buried in the soil

This stage lasts approximately two weeks.

Adult Moths

Once metamorphosis is complete, adult Death’s Head Hawk Moths emerge. These nocturnal moths have striking features such as:

They seek nectar from flowers, using their long proboscis. Adult moths live for about a month and engage in mating to reproduce and lay eggs, continuing the life cycle.

Habitat and Distribution

Host Plants

The Death’s Head Hawk Moth (Acherontia) belongs to the Sphingidae family of insects. These moths are found in various habitats such as allotments and gardens. They feed on a variety of plants from different families such as:

  • Solanaceae: potato, nightshade, and woody nightshade
  • Verbenaceae: common buckthorn, jasmine

These plants provide necessary sustenance for the moth’s larval stage.

Migration

The Death’s Head Hawk Moth is a migrant species, meaning that it travels across different geographical areas. The distribution of this moth stretches across parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Region Migration Pattern
Europe Summer
Asia Spring and Autumn
Africa Winter

The moth’s migration allows it to find suitable habitats and food sources to thrive in its life cycle, contributing to its wide distribution.

Diet and Predators

Feeding Habits

The Death’s Head Hawk Moth mainly feeds on nectar from flowers, using its long proboscis to reach into the blossoms. They have a penchant for:

  • Honey
  • Flowers rich in nectar

Examples of host plants for these moths include:

  • Tomato
  • Angels’ trumpets
  • Jasmine

Comparison Table:

Feeding preferences Honey Nectar
Death’s Head Hawk Moth Yes Yes

Natural Enemies

The main predators of Death’s Head Hawk Moths are:

  • Honey bees
  • Bats
  • Birds

Honey bees particularly target the moths when they invade their hives for honey. Their compound eyes provide them with a wide field of view to spot these predators. As larvae, the moths face other enemies like:

  • Parasitoid wasps
  • Some small mammals

These natural enemies help control the population of this fascinating but potentially destructive species.

Cultural Significance and Mythology

Literary References

The Death’s Head Hawk Moth has a prominent presence in various renowned literary works. Notably, The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris features the moth on its cover art, symbolizing the main antagonist and transformation. Thomas Hardy also incorporated this moth into his novel, The Return of the Native, where it is seen flying around a fire during the autumn season. In addition, Bram Stoker’s Dracula describes the moth, illustrating a sinister atmosphere.

Omens and Folklore

The Death’s Head Hawk Moth has earned its place in cultural folklore, with its distinct skull-like marking on its thorax. It is associated with omens of death due to this ominous feature which is tied to Halloween. Sightings of this moth are often regarded as rare and somewhat unsettling. Names for the moth in various languages reflect its grim reputation:

  • Dutch: Doodshoofdvlinder
  • German: Totenkopfschwärmer
  • Spanish: Cabeza de Muerto
  • Swedish: Dödskallesvärmare

Comparison Table

Feature Death’s Head Hawk Moth Other Hawk Moths
Markings Skull-like pattern on the thorax Typical patterns
Cultural Significance Omens of death, Halloween associations Lesser-known
Sightings Rare, typically in autumn More common throughout the year

In conclusion, the Death’s Head Hawk Moth holds substantial significance in literature, art, and folklore, making it a fascinating and mysterious species.

Conservation and Management

Threats and Pesticides

The Deaths Head Hawk Moth faces numerous threats, including habitat loss and exposure to pesticides. A study conducted by scientists found that the moth’s population is affected by increased use of insecticides in agricultural practices. This exposure can be reduced by:

  • Using organic farming techniques
  • Implementing integrated pest management strategies

It is essential to promote environmentally friendly practices to preserve these nocturnal moths, and their role in the ecosystem.

Role in Ecosystem

As adult moths, Deaths Head Hawk Moths play a crucial role in their ecosystem. The moths contribute to pollination, as well as acting as prey for predators such as bats. The moth’s scientific classification is as follows:

  • Fastest moth in their family (Sphingidae)
  • Unique markings resembling a human skull on their thorax

Given their importance in the ecosystem, it is vital to implement conservation and management measures to protect these unique creatures. Key steps include:

  • Monitoring and regulating the use of pesticides
  • Encouraging organic farming practices where possible
  • Raising awareness about the moth’s ecological role and importance

By taking these steps, we can help maintain the balance in the ecosystem and support the continued presence of the fascinating Deaths Head Hawk Moth.

Comparison Table: Deaths Head Hawk Moth vs. Other Nocturnal Moths

Feature Deaths Head Hawk Moth Other Nocturnal Moths
Speed Fastest in family Varies
Distinctive Markings Human skull on thorax Varies
Role in Ecosystem Pollination & prey Pollination & prey
Threats (Pesticides) High susceptibility Varies

Footnotes

  1. Sphinx Moths – Missouri Department of Conservation

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Death’s Head Hawkmoth from Dubai

 

Subject: Death’s-Head Hawkmoth in Dubai
Location: Dubai, UAE
February 6, 2017 6:47 am
Hi there!
We have a big black moth on our balcony in Dubai. It has been laying there for over a week. Every now and then it moves positions on our long balcony, but it doesn’t seem to want to leave.
We nudged it a couple of times with a broom and it is definitely alive as its wings opened up a little, but it quickly curled back and went back to rest.
After taking pictures on my camera and looking at images online, I came to the conclusion that it is the Death’s-Head Hawkmoth. But I am still unsure.
My question is, why is it absolutely still? It doesn’t move at all! At the moment, it is hiding most of its body under a pile of wood and has been there for 2-3 days. Is it hibernating or about to give birth? What is the best way to get rid of it? If it is pregnant, I am not very keen on having a bunch of caterpillars around, as I do have a massive phobia of insects!!
At the moment, the weather here ranges from 20-25 Celcius during the day to 15-20 Celcius at night.
Thanks for your help! 🙂
Signature: Anisha

Death’s Head Hawkmoth

Dear Anisha,
Though your image does not include the distinctive, namesake, skull-like markings on the thorax of this Death’s Head Hawkmoth, the markings on the wings and abdomen do indicate your identification is correct.  According to the BBC:  “Unlike other moths, death’s-head hawkmoths mostly eat honey, which is thick and gloopy compared to nectar. So Brehm thinks the moths modified their sucking action to allow the viscous honey to flow freely. … To get honey, death’s-head hawkmoths enter the hives of honeybees (
Apis mellifera).”  According to UK Safari:  “The larvae feed on potato plants, Buddleia and Deadly Nightshade (Atropa belladonna).”  Unless you have those plants on your balcony, you will not be seeing caterpillars.  After emergence from the pupa, the adult moth takes flight.  Flying takes a tremendous amount of energy and the moth must feed in order to be able to continue flying.  Perhaps this individual is waiting to attract a mate before taking flight again to lay eggs on the appropriate host plant.  If there is a light on your balcony, this moth might have been attracted to the light.  We do not provide extermination advice.

Hi Daniel!
Thanks so much for getting back to me!
Funny thing is, we do have a light on the balcony, but we almost never turn it on, it’s a really faint light thats pretty useless to us, so we don’t bother with it. However there is a floodlight on the facade of the building right next to our flat, that is sometimes turned on, so that might be what attracted it to us.
The only plants we have out there are cactus, some desert plants and one hibiscus.
I guess I’m wondering how long it will stay on our balcony, and if we were to take it to the edge, would it be able to fly?
I am constantly nervous going out there, so I’m trying to figure out a cruel free way of removing it! 🙂
Thanks!
Anisha

Our personal experience with moths in the family is that they may remain a few days, but eventually, when they are ready, they fly off.  It you don’t use the balcony, just let nature take its course.

 

Letter 2 – Death’s Head Hawkmoth from Dubai

 

Subject: Moth found
Location: Ground, weak. Thought it was dead but turned out to be alive
April 14, 2013 6:58 am
I know this isn’t really a big but I’d like to know what this moth is. What type, its name, and special features about it. I found it in school in the United Arab Emirates, Dubai. Please reply (:
Signature: Normally

Death's Head Hawkmoth
Death’s Head Hawkmoth

Dear Normally,
Your moth is a Death’s Head Hawkmoth, one of three species in the genus
Acherontia that share the common name.  The Death’s Head Hawkmoth entered modern popular culture notoriety because of its featured role in the book Silence of the Lambs and its use in the poster for the award winning movie.  You can read more about the Death’s Head Hawkmoth on the EarthSky website and other places on the internet.  We haven’t the necessary skills to differentiate the three species from photos alone, and we generally refer to the publicized range for the different species.  We believe your moth is Acherontia styx and you can find additional information on the Sphingidae of the Western Palaearctic website where its range is listed as: “Lower Mesopotamia (Wiltshire, 1957), Saudi Arabia (Pittaway, 1979b; Wiltshire, 1980a), eastern Oman (Wiltshire, 1975a), southern Iran and eastern Afghanistan (Ebert, 1969); as a migrant, it has been found in Turkey, Syria (Wiltshire, 1980b) and Jordan (Pittaway, 1993; Müller et al., 2005a). A. styx has recently (1982) spread right across Saudi Arabia to Jeddah (Wiltshire, 1986), and may well colonize the African mainland in the near future.”  While most moths feed on nectar, The Sphingidae of the Western Palaearctic notes this species is:  “An avid robber of honey in bee hives in Oman (Pittaway, 1993). ”  Your moth might actually be the best known member of the genus Acherontia atropos, as the range listed on the Sphingidae of the Western Palaearctic notes it is found in parts of the Middle East.

Letter 3 – Edgar Allen Poe and the Death's Head Hawkmoth

 

Poe story featuring a Sphinx Moth
Dear Bugman,
I came across your wonderful site while looking for information about the "Death’s-Head" Sphinx moth. Are you familiar with Edgar Allan Poe’s story "The Sphinx"? Every sphinx moth fan should read it (it’s short, and great fun):
http://www.eapoe.org/works/tales/sphinxc.htm
Having been intrigued by the story, I wanted to learn more about the moth, and was lucky enough to stumble upon your site. Although none of the postings mentioned the death’s head markings that Poe describes in his story, the photo dated 6/25/2005 of a snowberry clearwing in flight looks just right (see attached photo pulled from your site). Is the skull-like form we see in the photo particular to this kind of sphinx, or do they all have these markings when seen from this angle? Is there, in fact, a particular sphinx moth that’s commonly called the "Death’s-Head?" Presumably the moth that Poe represents would have been common in the Hudson River Valley in the 1840s. Thanks! I’m so glad to have stumbled, in this roundabout way, upon your site.
Jennifer L. Roberts
Assistant Professor
Department of History of Art and Architecture
Harvard University

Hi Jennifer,
Please say hello to our dear friend and mentor, Stephen Prina and tell him Daniel and Lisa Anne miss him in Los Angeles. In answer to your question, we read The Sphinx many years ago but should give it a re-read. We are also terribly fond of The Gold Bug. The Death’s Head Hawkmoth is an old world species, Acherontia atropos. The thoracic markings do look remarkably like a skull. The moth has been prominently featured in several films including Silence of the Lambs and Angels and Insects, the fabulous A.S. Byatt adaptation. Because of its iconography, it has a long history of appearances in literature. Here is a link with images and some information.

Dear Daniel and Lisa Anne,
Thanks so much! I will say hello to Stephen just as soon as I’m back within range (I’m currently on sabbatical up at Stanford, so I won’t see him until the fall). I’m sure we must have a few other mutual acquaintances — I specialize in post-wwII stuff (recent book on Robert Smithson) and try to keep up with the various critical personalities in LA. I’ve seen neither of the Death’s Head Hawkmoth movies (although I have /read/ Byatt’s Angels and Insects). Sounds like a good excuse for an Acherontia Atropos Film Festival. Keep up the great work on the site!
Jennifer

Letter 4 – Death's Head Hawkmoth from South Africa

 

Deaths head moth in Centurion, South Africa
January 13, 2010
Hi Bugman
My 14yr old son has found this huge moth
on the front wall of our house, he has now stayed in the same spot since the 11th of Jan and today is the 13th, without moving an inch!!! Comparing pics on the internet this looks like the deaths head moth, but which one?Is he dying, is there anything we can do?When I got close with the camera, it made a loud squeeking noise and squirted a brown liquid from its tail end (yuk!!)
Andrew and James Foxley
Centurion ( Pretoria) South Africa

Death's Head Hawkmoth
Death's Head Hawkmoth

Dear Andrew and James,
We are thrilled to get your photograph of a Death’s Head Hawkmoth, Acherontia atropos, the species found in South Africa.  We frequently receive photos of the caterpillars, but submissions of the imago are not as common to our site.  The squeaking is a well documented defense mechanism.  Often, Sphinx Moths are attracted to lights and rest several days before beginning to fly again.

Letter 5 – Death’s Head Hawkmoth from India

 

Subject: Moth identification
Location: Patna,India
July 7, 2014 5:24 am
Dear Bugman, you have helped me many times…one more request.. I cant identify this moth. Any help will be highly appreciated.
Thanks a lot,
Chandan Singh, India
Signature: chandan singh, Greenpower India

Deathshead Hawkmoth
Death’s Head Hawkmoth

Dear Chandan Singh,
This is a Death’s Head Hawkmoth in the genus
Acherontia, and the common name is derived from the resemblance of the pattern on the thorax to the outline of a human skull.  There are three members of the genus Acherontia, and they are quite similar looking and share the common name, but the most commonly commented upon species is Acherontia atropos which is found in Europe and Africa according to the Sphingidae of the Eastern Palaearctic website.  Your individual is most likely Acherontia styx which is distributed in Southeast Asia according to the Sphingidae of the Eastern Palaearctic website.  The third member of the genus, Acherontia lachesis, is also found in India according to the Sphingidae of the Eastern Palaearctic site.  Moths from this genus have a unique behavior associated with feeding that is described on the Sphingidae of the Eastern Palaearctic site as:  “An avid robber of honey in bee hives (Pittaway, 1993).”  The moth is able to enter hives and rob the honey without being stung to death by the bees.  The Death’s Head Sphinx entered the realm of pop culture when it played a role in the Oscar winning film Silence of the Lambs, appearing in the movie poster as well as being an important narrative element in the script.

Dear Daniel,
Thanks a lot for the the prompt and informative reply.
Best regards

Letter 6 – Death's Head Hawkmoth from Singapore

 

Moth
Location: Singapore
February 8, 2012 6:17 am
Hi again, I was just wondering if you could just confirm what this beautiful moth is – is it a ghost moth of some sort?
Thank you!
Signature: Cassia

Death's Head Hawkmoth

Dear Cassia,
Your interesting moth is commonly called the Death’s Head Hawkmoth because of the skull marking on the thorax of the adult moth.  Its scientific name is
Acherontia atropos.  The Death’s Head Hawkmoth was popularized when it appeared on the poster of the Oscar winning film Silence of the Lambs.  The striking caterpillar of the Death’s Head Hawkmoth is frequently submitted to our website for identification and it is also pictured on the Macro Photography in Singapore website.

Letter 7 – Death's Head Hawkmoth

 

moth
October 7, 2009
please can you tell me what this moth is that we came across whilst we were on holiday in the southwest of france in september 2009? are they poisones and should i have handled it
pauline
south west france

Death's Head Hawkmoth
Death's Head Hawkmoth

Hi pauline,
Congratulations on your sighting of a Death’s Head Hawkmoth, Acherontia atropos, the moth that was featured in the book and movie Silence of the Lambs.  It is found in the Middle East and Mediterranean regions.  Though we have received several images of caterpillars in the past, we believe this is the first image we have received of an adult moth or imago.  Wikipedia has an extensive page on this fascinating species.  It is not poisonous.

Comment
The Caterpillar of this species [which I believe has a wide geographic range] is consumed. In Papua New Guinea.
Dave Gracer

Letter 8 – Death's Head Hawkmoth

 

Death’s Head Hawkmoth from Italy
Location:  Rome (Italy)
September 8, 2010 10:43 am
Hello bugman,
I sent you an email a couple of days ago, but in the meantime I think I identified my moth.
It should be a Death’s Head Hawkmoth (Acherontia atropos), but it seems to have issues with its wings.
Thank you anyway, I hope you like the pictures (I am sending more).
Bye,
Signature:  Saverio

Death's Head Hawkmoth

Hi Saverio,
We are very happy you resent your images.  We did not see your original email but we would definitely have responded and posted your photos.  You are correct in you identification of a Death’s Head Hawkmoth.  It is newly metamorphosed and its wings have still not expanded, though on rare occasions the wings never expand and the moth is then incapable of flight.

Death's Head Hawkmoth

Letter 9 – Death's Head Hawkmoth pupa and imago from Portugal

 

Death’s Head Hawk Moth
Hi Daniel
Kate has asked me to send you the photos I took of the moth (not great I’m
afraid).  We put the caterpillar  into a box with earth on 17th August and
it immediately burrowed.  It emerged at around 10pm on Saturday 11th
September.  Unfortunately the lighting was so bad it was difficult to take
decent photos (plus I’m not a great photographer).

Death's Head Hawkmoth Pupa

I also have a short film which I uploaded to Youtube.  I can either send you
the film direct or the link to Youtube if you would like it.
Thanks for your help.
Kind regards
Jan

Death's Head Hawkmoth

Hi Jan
Your photo is most interesting to us because most photos of the Death’s Head Hawkmoth show the signature skull pattern on the thorax, but it is rare to have an image of the undersides of the wings.  If our memory serves us correctly, the original photo Kate sent of the caterpillar was from Portugal.

Thanks Daniel.  You’re right about the caterpillar being found in Portugal, which is where we live.  More precisely just north of Loulé in the Algarve.
Kind regards
Jan

Letter 10 – Death’s Head Hawkmoth from Malaysia

 

Subject: What Is This?
Location: Malaysia
July 4, 2013 3:58 am
Good day, I am just curious about this bug founded in my city, more precisely on the staircase of my school compound. wondering what was it thanks.
Signature: Msian

Death's Head Hawkmoth
Death’s Head Hawkmoth

Hi Msian,
This moth is a Death’s Head Hawkmoth in the genus
Acherontia.  There are three known species that all look quite similar, but that have different ranges.  We believe your moth is Acherontia styx, and you may read more about it on the Sphingidae of the Eastern Palaearctic website.

Death's Head Hawkmoth
Death’s Head Hawkmoth

Letter 11 – Death’s Head Hawkmoth from India

 

Subject: What’s that bug?
Location: India
July 20, 2013 1:01 pm
I captured the image that I’m sending to you today. Please help me in identifying that insect. Is it Vine Sphinx ?
Signature: e mail

Death's Head Hawkmoth
Death’s Head Hawkmoth

This is not a Vine Sphinx, but it is a member of the same family Sphingidae.  This is a Death’s Head Hawkmoth, a species popularized because of the advertising campaign of the movie Silence of the Lambs.

Letter 12 – Death’s Head Hawkmoth

 

Subject: Is this a hummingbird moth?
Location: Edenvale, Gauteng, South Africa
January 2, 2014 10:01 am
Hi bugman,
My dog first spotted this beautiful creature crawling amongst ground cover in my garden. I think it may be a hummingbird moth but I’m not sure because it doesn’t seem able to fly. I let it crawl onto my hand and then placed it in a high position, off the ground for safety. My husband thinks that it may have just hatched from its cacoon because the thinner wings under the ornate ones are crinkled.
Would love to hear your thoughts…
Signature: Chantelle Browne

Death's Head Hawkmoth
Death’s Head Hawkmoth

Hi Chantelle,
In the most broad sense, this is a Hummingbird Moth, which is a common name given to the moths in the family Sphingidae, though Hawkmoths and Sphinx Moths tend to be more commonly used.  The name Hummingbird Moths is generally used for the diurnal members of the family that fly during the day and are easily confused with hummingbirds.  This is actually a very famous moth in its own right.  It is a Death’s Head Hawkmoth,
Acherontia atropos, and it gained a degree of notoriety when it was used to illustrate posters for the thriller Silence of the Lambs.  The common name refers to the pattern on the thorax which is thought to resemble a human skull.  More information on the Death’s Head Hawkmoth can be found on the Natural History Museum website.  Your husband is correct.  This is a recently eclosed adult that probably emerged from the ground near where it was located.  The plant in the photo appears to be a jasmine, which is one of the larval food plants for the Death’s Head Hawkmoth Caterpillar.

Letter 13 – Death’s Head Hawkmoth from Pakistan

 

Subject: Moth ID from Lahore, Pakistan
Location: Lahore, Pakistan
September 4, 2014 6:59 pm
It has been raining in Lahore for a few days and this morning I found a very large moth on the wall in my car port. Please assist in identification.
Signature: Regards, Mrs. Asad Malik

Death's Head Hawkmoth
Death’s Head Hawkmoth

Dear Mrs. Asad Malik,
This is a Death’s Head Hawkmoth,
Acherontia styx, and it gets its common name because the pattern on the thorax is often compared to the outline of a human skull.

Letter 14 – Death’s Head Hawkmoth from Switzerland

 

Subject: 6 inch long bug with wings
Location: Switzerland – montreux
September 28, 2014 1:05 pm
Found this guy walking around garden. Huge with what looks like moth wings. Scales have a velvet like look. 6 legs with black and yellow abdomen.
Looked everywhere on net and can’t find it.
Signature: Chris

Death's Head Hawkmoth
Death’s Head Hawkmoth

Dear Chris,
This Death’s Head Hawkmoth has just eclosed, meaning it has emerged from its pupal stage, and its wings have still not expanded and hardened, a process that will enable it to fly.

Letter 15 – Death’s Head Hawkmoth from India

 

Subject: Can you identify this bug?
Location: Bangalore, India
March 16, 2015 9:52 pm
Hi
I found an insect in my garden that I haven’t seen before. Can you tell me what it is?
It has was camouflaged on wood, it has wings and a body like a bee. It looks like it stings. I’ve got quite close to it and it hasn’t moved yet, but it is alive.
Please see the attached picture.
Signature: Tanaya

Death's Head Hawkmoth
Death’s Head Hawkmoth

Dear Tanaya,
Your image appears to have had some filter effect added to it, which is not ideal for identification purposes, but your Death’s Head Hawkmoth in the genus
 Acherontia is still recognizable.  It is a perfectly harmless species that poses no threat to humans. 

Letter 16 – Possibly Death’s Head Hawkmoth found in Bee Hive in Germany

 

Subject: Beekiller?
Location: Germany
August 31, 2015 12:23 pm
Hi guys,
my dad found this in one of his beehives? It’s about 2.8 inches long and I have absolutely no idea what this could be.
Kind regards,
Signature: Benedikt

Death's Head Hawkmoth, we presume.
Death’s Head Hawkmoth, we presume.

Dear Benedikt,
Would that we had a lepidopterist on our staff, we could conclusively provide you with an identification of this Hawkmoth based on vein patterns and other characteristics, but you have submitted your request to a pop culture site with artists, not entomologists, on its staff.  Since there are no scales remaining on the wings or body of this Hawkmoth in the family Sphingidae, our identification is conjecture.  We believe this is a Death’s Head Hawkmoth,
Acherontia atropos, a species reported in Europe during the summer months.  According to Sphingidae of the Western Palaearctic:  “Many individuals have been seen to frequent bee-hives where, upon entry, they feed undisturbed on the honey, puncturing combs with their short, sharp proboscises. Moritz et al. (1991) have shown that this species makes itself ‘chemically invisible’ to honeybees by mimicking the cutaneous fatty acids of its hosts. If disturbed while feeding, or for that matter at any other time, the adults raise their wings, run and hop around, while emitting high-pitched squeaks.”  We don’t know what caused the loss of wing and body scales in your individual, which resulted in a loss of the visual characteristics of the species, including the thoracic pattern that has been likened to a human skull.  You did not indicate if the moth was found dead or alive.  We believe it would have been very difficult for your individual to fly in its condition, we causes us to conjecture that it lost its life once it entered the bee hive, though we cannot say if it was stung by bees as an intruder, or if your father killed it while attempting to collect it.  As we know of no other Hawkmoths that enter bee hives, we are relatively certain our identification is correct.  According to Encyclopedia of Life:  “Nectar and sugar eaters, adult moths like honey, and because they produce a scent mimicking the scent of bees, they can climb into hives without alarming the bees inside. Their thick skin also protects them from stings. Unlike the other two species which are more general in types of bees they raid, A. atropos only invades the hives of the Western honey bee, Apis mellifera. Another unusual feature of this moth is that it makes a loud squeaking sound as a protective device if it is threatened.”

Letter 17 – Death’s Head Hawkmoth from Crete

 

Subject: Whats that bug?
Location: Aptera, Crete
October 2, 2015 6:04 am
Saw this at Ancient Aptera on Crete a few weeks ago. It was just sitting on the rocks and did not seem yo be moving. It was several inches long. Very interesting design on the head.
Signature: CretanBob

Death's Head Hawkmoth
Death’s Head Hawkmoth

Dear CretanBob,
Your submission of this Death’s Head Hawkmoth image is quite timely as we just finished posting an image of the caterpillar of a Death’s Head Hawkmoth from France.  The pattern on the thorax of the adult moth resembles a human skull, hence the common name.

Letter 18 – Death’s Head Hawkmoth from Austria

 

Subject: Bee likely inesct
Location: Vienna, Austria
October 15, 2016 11:18 am
Hello, we found this bug in our apartmen and I have no idea what it could be. First I thought it might be a huge butterfly but it is to fat and to big and the wings are not like butterfly wings. It is about 10 cm big (or even bigger) and it is very voluminous. We found it in the city of Vienna in the season of autumn. I hope you can tell me what it is.
Signature: Marina Haller

Death's Head Hawkmoth
Death’s Head Hawkmoth

Dear Marina,
This is a Death’s Head Hawkmoth,
Acherontia atropos, a species that was featured in the advertisements for the Oscar winning movie Silence of the Lambs.  Our educational responsibilities are taking us away from the office for a few days, so we are post-dating your submission to go live later in the week during our absence.

Letter 19 – Death’s Head Hawkmoth from Saudi Arabia

 

Subject: moth identification
Location: Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
December 28, 2016 2:15 am
Dear Bugman,
I am a teacher in Jeddah Saudi Arabia, at the British International School. We collected some caterpillars that pupated under the soil. One has emerged and we would like to know what the species is please. We think they are Hawk Moth, maybe deaths head? There were 2 species of caterpillar one green and one brown. I do not know which caterpillar this moth has come from, as I had one of each colour in this container. Any help would be most appreciated.
Signature: Mrs Anne Kendrick

Death's Head Hawkmoth
Death’s Head Hawkmoth

Dear Anne,
You are correct.  This magnificent specimen is a Death’s Head Hawkmoth.

Authors

  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

13 thoughts on “Deaths Head Hawk Moth: Quick Guide for Curious Minds”

  1. Is the Hawk Moth toxic when eaten, if it has consumed an oleander plant?

    I occasionally feed them to my Dragons. (Bought on-line).

    Thank you.

    Emerald

    Reply
  2. Is the Hawk Moth toxic when eaten, if it has consumed an oleander plant?

    I occasionally feed them to my Dragons. (Bought on-line).

    Thank you.

    Emerald

    Reply

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