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moth Death's-Head Hawk-Moths

Identify It >   Moth Section >   Death's-Head Hawk-Moths >

Scientific name:  Acherontia atropos

Size:  Wingspan up to 135mm

Distribution:  Found in many parts of the UK, but most frequently found in the southern half of the UK.

Months seen:  May to September

Life span:  Caterpillars live for 3 to 5 weeks.  The pupal stage can last for 3 weeks.  The adult moths can live for up to 6 weeks.

Habitat:  Agricultural land, allotments and vegetable patches where potatoes are grown

Food:  The larvae feed on potato plants, Buddleia and Deadly Nightshade (Atropa belladonna).  Adult moths are known to feed on rotting fruit, tree sap and honey from bee hives

Special features:  Deaths-head Hawk-moths are the largest moths found in the U.K.  They are migrant moths which fly in to the U.K. from Europe in springtime.  They get their name from the unusual marking on the back of the thorax which resembles a skull and some people regard these moths as an omen of death - hence it's appearance in the film "The Silence of the Lambs".

The hindwings and abdomen carry flashy black and yellow stripes, while the forewings are mottled grey, brown and black for camouflage.

The caterpillars come in three different colour forms: a light yellow-green with darker stripes (purple and white diagonal stripes along the sides), a whitish blue shade with blue-grey stripes, and a brown, almost snakeskin pattern, with a white head.  When coiled up the last form looks like a large bird poop.  All three varieties can grow to 15cm in length.  The caterpillars used to be commonly found on farmland, but you are now more likely to find them in gardens and allotments where pesticides are not in use.

As with other hawkmoth larvae the Death's-head hawkmoth caterpillars have a horn-like projection on their back end.  The horn is downward pointing with a slightly upturned/curly tip and the whole thing is covered in tiny bumps.

The shiny brown pupae of the Death's-head Hawkmoths can sometimes be found in the soil, in potato fields as the crops are lifted.

Adult Death's-head Hawkmoths moths are known to make an audible squeaking sound when handled.  It's thought this squeaking sounds like a queen bee, and it protects the moth from attack when feeding on honey in bee hives.  The moths can even emit a perfume which smells like a bee so the moth can move about in the hive unhindered.  This has earned them the nickname of "bee robbers".

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