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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July 22, 2014 - 6:00pm
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