Our Deadly Friend, Acherontia Atropos

Say hello to our squeaky visitor – the Death’s Head Hawk Moth! A very striking moth with bold colours and a sinister mark on their thorax.

This moth originates in Africa but migrates across to southern Europe and can even be seen in Britain, more commonly in the British Isles.

Some, or most of you, may already be familiar with this fluffy little fellow, thanks to the 1991 blockbuster movie The Silence of the Lambs; where our grizzly serial killer – Buffalo Bill; leaves Acherontia Atropos pupa as his killing card in his victim’s mouths.

 

Interesting Fact: The director, Jonathan Demme, used the pupa of a different species because it looked more dramatic on camera! The species used was Manduca Sexta – The Tobacco Horn Worm.

Although, the very first ‘pupal case’ was actually made from a combination of Tootsie Rolls and Gummy Bear sweets.

 

 

This particular species displays a number of behaviours that are not usually seen in its family of Lepidoptera. Most moths generate noise by rubbing external body parts together, whereas, all three species within the genus Acherontia are actually capable of producing a “squeak” from their pharynx. They suck in air, causing an internal flap between the mouth and throat to vibrate rapidly. The squeak is then produced upon the exhalation when the flap is open.

 

 

The squeak produced, mimics the piping noise produced from a honey bee hive’s queen, which leads us on to our next interesting fact about the Death’s Head Hawk Moth.

It turns out, our famous moth is actually a thief! The Acherontia genus all like to squeeze into bee hive’s and steal the honey. It is believed that they get past the guard bees using their thick cuticle and resistance to bee venom, and once inside, research shows that they are able to mimic the scent of the bees [1] in order to move around unsolicited.

 


This is also where the squeak comes into play – there are two schools of thought here;

  1. The sound is mimicking that of the queen which convinces the bees to leave the moth alone
  2. The sound somehow paralyses the bees allowing free reign for the moth to gobble as much honey as possible.

 

 

There is however, no real evidence to support either theory, and the sound is more likely to be a tool for warding off predators. All we can say, is this moth is incredibly fascinating and certainly a firm favourite among collectors and hobbyists alike.


[1] Moritz, RFA, WH Kirchner and RM Crewe. 1991. Chemical camouflage of the death’s head hawkmoth (Acherontia atropos L.) in honeybee colonies. Naturwissenschaften 78 (4): 179-182.
Image Credits: Ervin Szombathelyi & Ingo Arndt/NPL