Monday, 27 August 2012

Weird and Wonderful: Death’s Head Hawk Moth

Gemma Hallam

Death’s Head Hawk Moth
No it’s not from Star Wars or Dr Who, but it did hold a starring role in The Silence of the Lambs! It’s the largest moth to be found in Britain, measuring up to 13cm fully grown. The Death’s Head Hawk Moth comes from Tropical Africa, but spends time during late-Summer migrating to tepid areas of Europe, Northern Ireland as well as southern and eastern England.

These poor fellows have become an omen of death as they have a skull-like marking on their ‘chest’ between their head and abdomen.  The 3 species of Death’s Head Hawk Moths all have sinister names; Atropos – a member of the moiari who cuts the thread of life in Greek mythology, Lachesis – another of the 3 moirai, responsible for deciding the length of a person’s life thread, and Styx – the river to the underworld. The third moirai, Clotho, may have missed out on the allocation of one of the species, because her role in the trio is deciding when people are born and she can bring people back from the dead; far too optimistic for association with these gloomy moths!

The caterpillar comes in 3 coloured varieties: a light green/yellow with darker stripes (as pictured), a pale blue shade with washed-out stripes, and a brown snakeskin type with a white head, which makes it look like a bird poo! They do not hatch from their larva with the stripes, but develop them at the 3rd out of 5 stages (or instar) of being a larva (before they become a caterpillar). They’re not very active and only move to feed (sound familiar?), but they are feisty! If disturbed, they thrash about in an attempt to gnash their attacker with their mandibles.

The insects have relatively short proboscis (protruding tubular noses used for feeding) rendering it incapable of reaching into plants to feed on the nectar. Instead, they feed on honey, tricking the bees into not attacking them by squeaking in a way similar to the Queen Bee. If a guard bee attacks them, it’s not too much of a problem because with their immunity to the bee sting and thick, protective bodies, they can handle a bit of hassle, however, after drinking honey, the moths can’t squeak for about 5 hours and have to make a swift exit from the hive. They’re aided in doing so through ‘chemical camouflage’, emitting an odour containing the 4 fatty acids that bees carry around. This has earned the species the nickname ‘bee robbers’, but they will settle for rotting fruit and tree sap. The larva feed on potato leaves (although this has decreased with the rise of mechanical farming), buddleia and ominously, deadly night shade.

Death’s Head Hawk Moth caterpillar - James Twose
Although there’s all this negativity related to the Death’s Head Hawk Moth, you can’t help but admit they’re striking fellows. They have dramatic black and yellow stripy hindwings (they have 2 pairs of wings) and abdomens. Their pupae are a lovely deep mahogany and shiny, although thinking on it, they may also look a bit like a poo. My sympathy is with them!

Check out this video about the Death’s Head Hawk Moth: