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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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Jacqueline Nell/Disneyland Resort, Getty Images
The Fascinating Reason Why There Are No Mosquitoes at Disney World
Jacqueline Nell/Disneyland Resort, Getty Images
Jacqueline Nell/Disneyland Resort, Getty Images

There are no mosquitoes in The Most Magical Place on Earth. That's right, Disney World is so dedicated to making sure you have the time of your life that they've made the bugs practically disappear. How do they pull that off? No, the answer isn't magic. Vlogger Rob Plays delved into the answer in a video spotted by Neatorama.

It would be a feat to get rid of pesky mosquitoes anywhere, but Disney World is in Florida, a.k.a. swamp territory, where insects are more abundant than other places. Bugs are annoying, but they're also dangerous if they're carrying diseases like Zika, and Disney has a responsibility to protect its guests. In short, Disney gets rid of the pests by employing a comprehensive program that includes spraying insecticides and maintaining natural predators, and they do all of this with a level of vigilance that's fearsome to behold.

The park has something called the Mosquito Surveillance Program to manage it all. There are carbon dioxide traps everywhere, and once they catch bugs, the team at Disney freezes and analyzes the population to determine how best to eradicate them. Interestingly enough, they also employ the use of chickens. These sentinel chickens, as they're called, live in coops all over Disney World. While these feathered employees are going about their daily life, their blood is being monitored for mosquito-borne diseases like West Nile virus. Lucky for the chickens, they don't get sick from the virus—but if they do pick it up, the Disney team knows where in the park they got it from so they can deliver a swift blow to the mosquitoes in that area.

You may also notice that the video is populated by clips of the Seven Dwarfs spraying insecticides. If you're wondering how you missed a lengthy sequence in which Happy, Grumpy, and co. did battle with the local insect population in 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, you didn't. The clips come from a separate propaganda film that Disney made during World War II called The Winged Scourge, all about the dangers of malaria and the insects that carry it. The disease caused major casualties for the Allies while fighting in the Pacific Ocean theater of World War II.

Next time you're visiting Disney World, be sure to appreciate the relatively insect-free utopia before returning to the real world.

[h/t Neatorama]

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Honey Bees Can Understand the Concept of Zero
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The concept of zero—less than one, nothing, nada—is deceptively complex. The first placeholder zero dates back to around 300 BCE, and the notion didn’t make its way to Western Europe until the 12th century. It takes children until preschool to wrap their brains around the concept. But scientists in Australia recently discovered a new animal capable of understanding zero: the honey bee. According to Vox, a new study finds that the insects can be taught the concept of nothing.

A few other animals can understand zero, according to current research. Dolphins, parrots, and monkeys can all understand the difference between something and nothing, but honey bees are the first insects proven to be able to do it.

The new study, published in the journal Science, finds that honey bees can rank quantities based on “greater than” and “less than,” and can understand that nothing is less than one.

Left: A photo of a bee choosing between images with black dots on them. Right: an illustration of a bee choosing the image with fewer dots
© Scarlett Howard & Aurore Avarguès-Weber

The researchers trained bees to identify images in the lab that showed the fewest number of elements (in this case, dots). If they chose the image with the fewest circles from a set, they received sweetened water, whereas if they chose another image, they received bitter quinine.

Once the insects got that concept down, the researchers introduced another challenge: The bees had to choose between a blank image and one with dots on it. More than 60 percent of the time, the insects were successfully able to extrapolate that if they needed to choose the fewest dots between an image with a few dots and an image with no dots at all, no dots was the correct answer. They could grasp the concept that nothing can still be a numerical quantity.

It’s not entirely surprising that bees are capable of such feats of intelligence. We already know that they can count, teach each other skills, communicate via the “waggle dance,” and think abstractly. This is just more evidence that bees are strikingly intelligent creatures, despite the fact that their insect brains look nothing like our own.

Considering how far apart bees and primates are on the evolutionary tree, and how different their brains are from ours—they have fewer than 1 million neurons, while we have about 86 billion—this finding raises a lot of new questions about the neural basis of understanding numbers, and will no doubt lead to further research on how the brain processes concepts like zero.

[h/t Vox]

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