Death's Head Hawkmoths

Posted by Beth Watson on

Death's Head Hawkmoths

The name death's-head hawkmoth refers to any of three moth species of the genus Acherontia (Acherontia atropos, Acherontia styx and Acherontia lachesis). The former species is found in Europe and throughout Africa, the latter two are Asian; most uses of the common name refer to the European species. These moths are easily distinguishable by the vaguely human skull-shaped pattern of markings on the thorax. They are large nocturnal moths with brown and yellow or orange coloring, and all three species are fairly similar in size, coloration and life cycle.

These moths have several unusual features. All three species have the ability to emit a loud chirp if irritated. The sound is produced by inhaling and expelling air, which vibrates the epipharynx. This is often accompanied by flashing their brightly colored abdomen in a further attempt to deter predators. The chirp of the death's head hawkmoth takes approximately one-fifth of a second. A study by National Geographic found that the epipharynx was originally built to suck up honey, but later evolved to produce sound.

Adults of all three species are commonly observed raiding beehives of different species. They can move about in hives without being disturbed because they mimic the scent of the bees and are not recognized as intruders.

The skull-like pattern and its fanciful associations with the supernatural and evil have fostered superstitious fears of Acherontia species, particularly Acherontia atropos, perhaps because it is the most widely known. The moths' sharp, mouse-like squeaking intensify the effect. 

The species names atropos, lachesis, and styx are all from Greek myth and related to death. The first refers to the member of the three Moirai who cuts the threads of life of all beings; the second to the Moira who allots the correct amount of life to a being; and the last refers to the river of the dead. In addition the genus name Acherontia is derived from Acheron, a river of Greek myth that was said to be a branch of the river Styx.

The Death's Head Hawkmoth has been featured in various forms of art throughout history:

The Hireling Shephard by William Holman Hunt -1851 painting

The Sphinx by Edgar Allen Poe -1846 short story

The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy -1878 novel

Bram Stoker's Dracula -novel & film

Un Chien Andalou -1929 film

The Blood Beast Terror -1968 film

The Silence of the Lambs -1991film

The Tag-Along -2015 film

The Warning -2018 film

1 comment

  • I love that there are so many different kinds of these.

    Chris on

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