Acherontia atropos — “Deathshead-hawkmoth”

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.

acherontia atropos“Somebody grew this guy, fed him honey and nightshade, kept him warm.  Somebody loved him.”- Silence of the Lambs

  • Difficulty rating:  4/10 (Easy to breed)
  • Host plants: Ligustrum, Fraxinus, Solanum sp. (potato and tomato are very suitable), Generally Oleaceae and Solanaceae. Also reported on Cannabis and Buddleia
  •  Natural range:  the continents of Europe and Africa
  • Polyphagous:   Yes  
  • Generations: Multivoltine (continuously brooded)
  • Family: Sphingidae (hawkmoths)
  • Pupation:  Subterranean (burrows in soil)
  • Prefered climate: Hot to temperate

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.

acherontiacatIt rubs the lotion on its skin..

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.

Video impression: 

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.

buriedPupal chamber

Some yellow caterpillars can be seen here, having buried into the soil of a potted potato  plant.

pupae“Boy, he’s a big sucker’

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.

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OTHER MEDIA: (Some more images of this species)

acher1Tiny eggs

acher2Newborn L1

acher3 Getting bigger

acher4L3

acher5L4

acher6 L4/L5

acher7L5

acher8Pupae

acher9Emergence

acher10Adult pumping up the wings

acher11Finished “product” aka one beautiful moth

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6 thoughts on “Acherontia atropos — “Deathshead-hawkmoth””

  1. Hi I currently messaged you on facebook I watched your rearing video on the larvae I was wondering if you have and suggestions on an incubator and where would I get privet if there is no place where I live can I order some?

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The aim of this website is to provide information about many species of moths and butterflies around the world, with a slight focus on rearing them in captivity.

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