Death’s Head Hawkmoth: The Moth with A Human Skull

The Death’s Head moth is the common name for the moth species Acherontia atropos, Acherontia styx, and Acherontia lachesis. It is a member of the Sphingidae (Lepidoptera) which includes hawk moths and sphinx moths. These ominous insects may look scary with an outline of a skull on its forewings, but they’re harmless.

Where is the death’s head moth native to?

The Death’s Head moth lives in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Southern Europe. However, it sometimes makes an ominous appearance in Britain and London during the warmer summer.

And these moths are skilled travelers. They can migrate up to 2,000 miles from Africa to spread a little spookiness to the British Isles and Great Britain.

What is the story of Death’s head moth?

One look at the Death’s Head moth, and it becomes clear why this giant moth is a symbol of bad omens. It appears in paintings like The Hireling Shepherd to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and it’s even on the cover of the movie poster of The Silence of the Lambs.

With the Death Head’s moth comes a host of European superstitions. When King George III found two Death Head’s moths in his bedroom in the early 1800s, it sent him into a bout of madness. So, what is it about the Acherontia atropos that makes it such bad news?

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  • Size: The massive size of this moth has a little something to do with the overall fear it brings. It’s one of the largest moth species in all of Europe. It has an impressive wingspan of about 5 inches!
  • Markings: Of course, the markings of this moth are a little strange and unsettling. It has a strange skull-like marking on its thorax, and it’s accented in unsettling shades of black and brown.
Acherontia lachesis (female)
Acherontia lachesis (female)

How rare is Death’s head hawk moth?

If you are worried about superstitions, fear not! Spotting a Death’s Head moth is incredibly rare.

Migrating moths appear in the UK from their travels from Asia, India, and Africa between August and October. Just in time for Halloween!

And only a few dozen make their way to the British Isles during migration. It’s rare to stumble across a Death’s Head moth for the few lucky (or unlucky) ones.

Death's Head hawkmoth
Death’s Head hawkmoth

What is the lifespan?

The lifespan of the Death’s Head moth is relatively short (6 weeks). Here’s a quick breakdown of their life cycle.

  • Larva stage. Death’s Head Moth caterpillars remain in this form for around three to five weeks. When they are ready, they enter the pupate stage.
  • Pupa stage. These caterpillars create a protective cocoon where they remain for around a month. If they make it to the moth stage, their lifespan is surprisingly short.
  • Moth stage. Once they emerge from their cocoon, they only live about six weeks. And that’s assuming they don’t become a tasty snack from a predator along the way. To put that into perspective, Monarch butterflies can live up to 8 months!

Are death’s head hawk moths poisonous?

No, Death’s Head moths are not poisonous despite their ominous markings. Caterpillars click their mandibles together to scare off predators, and will even bite! But don’t worry, they’re not poisonous.

Their bark (or their squeak) is worse than their bite. Unless you consume a Death’s Head moth (which is just asking for trouble), these moths are completely harmless.

Acherontia atropos
Acherontia atropos

What is the death’s head moth’s defense mechanism?

When in trouble, a Death’s Head moth will let out an adorable squeak. They draw in and push out air from their pharynx which produces a squeaking sound.

Scientists still aren’t entirely sure why they squeak to defend themselves, but they have a few theories. Some believe the squeaking sound (which sounds like a chattering bird) is a way to confuse their predators. This gives them time to make a quick escape!

What is the death’s head moth’s favorite food?

Caterpillars love to nibble on the leaves of a potato plant. Once they emerge as a moth, they prefer nectar from flowers and honey. They are notorious honey thieves! Death’s Head moths have been spotting infiltrating beehives in search of honey.

Their bodies take on the scent of honey bees, and their squeaking noise helps them to fit right in.

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