The Goth Moth
Kelly’s Field Notes
Common Name: Death’s-head Hawkmoth
Ae. atropos - found throughout Europe and Africa, mostly what people are referring to when they use the common name. This species is the largest moth species in the U.K.
Ae. styx - found in Asia.
Ae. lachesis - found in Asia.
You can’t miss that human skull shape on their backs! All three species look very similar and are nocturnal. Death’s-head hawkmoths have a wingspan of around 13 cm (5 in) and a body length of 6 cm (2.4 in). These are chunky moths! Also, and kind if alarmingly, adults have banded abdomens that resemble a rib cage.
Caterpillars come in three colors: green, yellow, or mottled brown. They are large caterpillars at full size before pupating, growing up to 12.7 cm (5 in) in length. They also have a horn shaped protrusion on their tail end, which changes in color and shape as the caterpillar molts. Why the horn exists in these and other caterpillars is a bit of a mystery, a few theories are they are a visual deterrent against predators, camouflage to resemble a stem, or maybe to aid in stability when the larvae are small. The horn is not rigid at all, it’s pretty floppy and harmless. Caterpillars will attempt to bite when disturbed!
Like other moths, the death’s-head hawkmoth goes through 4 stages: egg, larvae (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), adult. Females can lay up to 200 or so eggs, mating and creating multiple broods. They take between 7 and 10 days to hatch. Once hatched, the larvae go on the hunt for plants to munch. To add to their mystique, one group of the many types of plants they feed are the nightshades! The caterpillars will eat for about 3-5 weeks before they are ready to pupate. Then, they burrow under the ground about 15cm (6 in) to pupate while they overwinter. They remain in the pupal stage for about 3 weeks before emerging as adults. The adults live for up to 6 weeks.
Squeak! - Adult Death’s-head hawk moths will squeak when disturbed, to scare off predators. The squeak is made by drawing air into a space at the base of their proboscis and then opening and closing the oral aperture (the end opening of the proboscis) rapidly.
Erratic Movement - While many people find the movement of butterflies and moths to be uncomfortable to be around, the death’s-head hawkmoth goes one step further. When disturbed, while squeaking, the moth will hop around shrugging its wings up and down.
Thievery - Death's-head hawkmoths raid honey bee hives for honey! Their squeak resembles the noise (called piping) of queen bees. Because their proboscis is short, stout, and pointed it can also easily stab capped honey cells. Their short, densely packed scales help prevent stings by the bees and when they do get through, this species of hawkmoth has some resistance to bee venom. It has been hypothesized that the skull shape is actually a mimic of a queen bee face with a gravid body, tricking the bees once the moth has entered the hive. Some moths do get attacked and killed, so this is not a fool proof plan. Additionally, the moth releases chemical cues from its cuticle that are the same as the honeybees, giving it more protection from the workers once in the hive.
Stabby Proboscis - While the hawkmoth can collect nectar from flowers the old fashioned way, they have been known to stab through the base of the flower to extract nectar.
Navigation and Flight - European Death’s-head hawkmoths migrate to the Mediterranean and to North Africa and possibly Sub-Saharan Africa - meaning they may be covering 4,000km. These impressive moths migrate at night and adjust for head and crosswinds.
Death’s-head Hawkmoths in Culture:
Bad luck! Entomologist Moses Harris wrote, "It is regarded not as the creation of a benevolent being, but the device of evil spirits—spirits enemies to man—conceived and fabricated in the dark, and the very shining of its eyes is thought to represent the fiery element whence it is supposed to have proceeded. Flying into their apartments in the evening at times it extinguishes the light; foretelling war, pestilence, hunger, death to man and beast."
France has some lore around this moth that if the scales from its wings fall into your eyes you will become blind.
Acherontia styx is named for the river styx, one of the rivers of the underworld in Greek mythology.
Acherontia atropos and Acherontia lachesis are named for the Greek Fates, Atropos (unalterable) and Lachesis (the alloter). Atropos is responsible for severing your mortal coil while Lachesis is responsible for allocating your time alive.
Count Dracula fed his thrall, Renfield, Acherontia atropos.
Fear of this moth did not really occur in Europe until the 18th century, this is likely because they were not very common. Once potatoes were introduced as a staple crop the moths became more common and then myths and superstition arose around them.
In the novel and movie by the same name, The Silence of the Lambs, the killer placed a pupa of Acherontia styx into the mouths of his victims.
Harris, Thomas, 1940-. The Silence of the Lambs. New York :St. Martin's, 1989.
Cowan, Frank. Curious Facts in the History of Insects: Including Spiders and Scorpions. A Complete Collection of the Legends, Superstitions, Beliefs, and Ominous Signs Connected with Insects; Together with Their Uses in Medicine, Art, and as Food; and a Summary of Their Remarkable Injuries and Appearances. JB Lippincott & Company, 1865.
Devi, S. Jamuna, and K. Ramaraju. "Death's head hawk moth, Acherontia styx westwood (Lepidoptera: Sphingidae)-Its taxonomy and biology." Indian Journal of Entomology 78.2 (2016): 111-116.
Kitching, I. The biology of death’s head hawkmoths, lepidopteran kleptoparasites of honey bees. Natural History Museum, 2006.
Menz, Myles HM, et al. "Individual tracking reveals long-distance flight-path control in a nocturnally migrating moth." Science 377.6607 (2022): 764-768.
Robischon, Marcel. "Environmental and Cultural History of the Death's Head Hawkmoth." Environment and History 25.3 (2019): 451-474.