Acherontia atropos, also known as the “Deathshead-hawkmoth”, is well known and notorious due to the part it has played in the famous horror movie “Silence of the Lambs”. They have a grim reputation, and in many cultures they are considered evil creatures – often labeled the souls of the dead, evil spirits, or a dark omen. This is probably due to the fact that the marking on the thorax of this moth resembles a human skull. Combined with the fact they can squeak loudly and are quite large many people will regard them as eerie and unnerving insects. They couldn’t be further from the truth though, as Deathshead-hawkmoths are quite harmless and fascinating.
Originating from Africa and South-Europe (Kreta, Greece, Spain) these moths prefer a hot and dry climate and are excellent migrants, being able to quickly reach new habitats, migrating to northern Russia and Sweden all the way from Africa during summers.
The adult moths have a very unique lifestyle, for they are able to infiltrate beehives, and consume the honey. They have been morphologically adapted to do this. Research has revealed they emit pheromones that are very similar to bee pheromones, used to distract the bees while infiltrating the hive. They may also produce a loud squeaking noise which is said to mimic the sound of a queen bee. This also explains the “skull” marking on the thorax which upon closer examination is actually quite similar to the face of a worker bee.
The caterpillars are quite large and have impressive colours. They also come in different colour morphs; they may have a dominantly yellow, green or a brown color. (Picture: yellow form)
Their host plants consist of a large selection of nightshades (Solanaceae) – among which are potato, tomato, tabacco, deadly nightshade and many more. Apart from nightshade they also feed on plants from the olive family (Oleaceae) including privet, ash tree, jasmin, lilac and more. They have also been reported to feed on cannabis and sometimes oleander.
After reaching their final instars when feeding for a month, caterpillars will submerge themselves in the earth and bury deep underground. Here they will build a hollow chamber in the earth to pupate in.
Some yellow caterpillars can be seen here, having buried into the soil of a potted potato plant.
Pupae will usually emerge in about a month. They are however also able to go into diapause for a prolonged time if not provided enough warmth. This will mechanism will cause the species to overwinter.
Thanks for reading! Here is a photo collage of the full cycle of this moth in captivity: