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12 Facts About the Death's-Head Hawkmoth

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Celebrate National Moth Week with a few facts about one of the most striking insects in the animal kingdom: The Death's-Head Hawkmoth.

1. The Death's-Head Hawkmoth gets its name from the skull-like mark on its thorax.

2. Given its unusual markings, it's probably not surprising that people once considered it a bad omen. In 1840, entomologist Moses Harris wrote that "It is regarded not as the creation of a benevolent being, but the device of evil spirits—spirits enemies to man—conceived and fabricated in the dark, and the very shining of its eyes is thought to represent the fiery element whence it is supposed to have proceeded. Flying into their apartments in the evening at times it extinguishes the light; foretelling war, pestilence, hunger, death to man and beast."

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3. There are actually three species in the genus Acherontia, which takes its name from the Acheron, the River of Pain in the underworld: A. styx, found in Asia, is named after the boundary river of Hades; A. lachesis, found in India and other parts of Asia, is named for the fate who measures the thread of life; and the best known of the bunch, A. atropos, found from Great Britain (at least in the warmer months) to South Africa, takes its name from the Fate that cuts the thread of life.

4. The caterpillars come in three colors—bright yellow, bright green, or a mottled brown—and have a tail horn that changes color and curves as the larvae mature. They feed on more than 100 plants, including nightshade, and grow up to 5 inches long. You don’t want to mess with them: When threatened, they click their mandibles and try to bite their attacker!

5. The caterpillars molt four times before it’s time to pupate, at which point they cover themselves with a saliva-like secretion and go to ground. When they find a suitable spot, they burrow 5 to 15 inches below the surface and shed their skins.

6. The moths are big: The smallest, A. styx, has a wingspan between 3 and 5.11 inches; A. lachesis, the largest, has a wingspan of 4 to 5.19 inches; and A. atropos has a wingspan of 3.5 to 5.11 inches.

7. When disturbed, the moths squeak. The sound is produced by an internal flap, called the epipharynx, which sits at the base of the proboscis.

8. The Acherontia moths raid the hives of honey bees. In the 1836 book The Natural History of British Moths, Sphinxes, &c, James Duncan wondered how they did it, writing, “This insect is in the habit of entering the hives of the common domestic bee, where it takes up its abode for a time, and regales itself on the honey. … It is not easy to understand how a creature without offensive weapons, and unprotected by any hard covering, can either resist or survive the attacks of so many armed assailants.”

Some scientists believed it might have been the moth’s squeaking—which sounds like the noises a queen bee makes—while others thought that the mark on the thorax resembled a worker bee’s face. Recently research shows that the moths excrete an odor that contains the same compounds present in honeybee odor, which might mask their presence from the bees.

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9. A. atropos is the fastest moth in the world; it can fly at speeds up to 30mph! The insects can also hover like hummingbirds as they drink nectar from flowers.

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10. The moth has popped up in literature: In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the titular vampire sends the moths to his thrall, Renfeld. Thomas Hardy wrote about them in The Return of the Native, and John Keats mentioned them in his poem “Ode to Melancholy.” And in Thomas Harris’s book Silence of the Lambs, the killer places the pupae of the Acherontia styx in his victims throats. (In the movie adaptation, the filmmakers either used the pupae of the tobacco hornworm or A. atropos.)

11. Two large moths were discovered in the bedchamber of King George III in 1801, during his second major incident of madness. One of the moths, collected by the monarch’s physician, Robert Darling Willis, is at the University of Cambridge. There’s no evidence that the King actually saw the moths.

12. Don’t want to call it a death’s-head? In Dutch, they're called Doodshoofdvlinder; in French, le sphinx à tête de mort; in German, Totenkopfschwärmer; in Spanish, cabeza de muerto; and in Swedish, Dödskallesvärmare.

All images courtesy of iStock unless otherwise stated. 

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Finnish Food Company Launches The World's First Insect-Based Bread
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Fazer

A Finnish food company has created a protein-packed bread using an unusual natural ingredient: crickets. It's billed as the world's first insect-based bread to ever be sold in stores, according to Reuters.

In September 2017, Finnish officials approved the cultivation and sale of insects as food. But Fazer Food Services in Helsinki has been testing a bread that contained flour, seeds, and "flour" made from dried crickets long before than decision. The company waited for Finland to give bug food products the go-ahead before officially launching their product in late November.

"We wanted to be in the forefront of food revolution," said Markus Hellström, Fazer Bakery Finland's managing director, in a news release. Plus, he added, "Finns are known to be willing to try new things, and the Fazer Cricket Bread is an easy way to get a feel of food of the future."

A single loaf of cricket bread will set customers back nearly $5. Each contains around 70 crushed crickets, which are currently sourced from the Netherlands. Currently, there's not enough cricket flour for Fazer to conduct nationwide sales, so the company is rolling the product out in stages. Just 11 locations in the Helsinki metro area sell Fazer Cricket Bread right now, with plans to eventually offer it in all 47 Fazer in-store bakeries.

Cricket bread has more protein than the typical baked good, plus it's believed be more environmentally friendly to boot. And Fazer company officials believe that Finns, in particular, are willing to bite.

The world "needs new and sustainable sources of nutrition,” said Juhani Sibakov, Fazer Bakery Finland's director of innovation, in the statement. “According to research, of all the Nordic countries, Finns have the most positive attitudes towards insects.”

[h/t Reuters]

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Which Rooms In Your Home Have the Most Types of Bugs, According to Entomologists 
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Insects can make any home their own, so long as it contains cracks, doors, and windows for them to fly, wriggle, or hitchhike their way in. And it turns out that the creepy crawlers prefer your living room over your kitchen, according to a new study that was recently highlighted by The Verge.

Published in the journal Scientific Reports, the study looked at 50 homes in Raleigh, North Carolina, to measure their insect populations. Entomologists from both North Carolina State University and the California Academy of Sciences ultimately discovered more than 10,000 bugs, both alive and dead, and a diverse array of species to boot.

The most commonly observed bugs were harmless, and included ladybugs, silverfish, fruit flies, and book lice. (Luckily for homeowners, pests like bedbugs, termites, and fleas were scarcer.) Not all rooms, though, contained the same distribution of many-legged residents.

Ground-floor living rooms with carpets and windows tended to have the most diverse bug populations, as the critters had easy access inside, lots of space to live in, and a fibrous floor habitat that could be either a cozy homestead or a death trap for bugs, depending on whether they got stuck in it. The higher the floor level, the less diverse the bug population was, a fact that could be attributed to the lack of doors and outside openings.

Types of bugs that were thought to be specific to some types of rooms were actually common across the board. Ants and cockroaches didn’t limit themselves to the kitchen, while cellar spiders were present in all types of rooms. As for moths and drain flies, they were found in both common rooms and bathrooms.

Researchers also found that “resident behavior such as house tidiness, pesticide usage, and pet ownership showed no significant influence on arthropod community composition.”

The study isn’t representative of all households, since entomologists studied only 50 homes within the same geographical area. But one main takeaway could be that cohabiting bugs “are an inevitable part of life on Earth and more reflective of the conditions outside homes than the decisions made inside,” the researchers concluded. In short, it might finally be time to make peace with your itty-bitty housemates.

[h/t The Verge]

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