Photo From You: Insect Identification

About two weeks ago one of our readers submitted a photo of an insect for us to identify. Erin Mills, our resident entomologist, figured out what it was and is ready to teach us all about a new moth.

Photo Peter sent us to identify

This photo comes to us all the way from right outside of Almeria, in Southern Spain, wow! Peter was digging in his garden and dug up what he thought was a snake, or part of one. It turned out to be a moth pupa. He kept it until the moth emerged and took a picture of what he saw. The moth’s wings were not yet completely developed at the time of the picture, so I knew I had a challenge ahead of me! Also, I don’t consider myself an expert on European moths. Luckily for me, this particular moth had some very distinguishing markings and a very unique behavior.

This is called a Death’s Head Hawkmoth. It is one of 3 different species that share this common name because of the marking on the thorax that looks vaguely like a skull. All 3 species belong to the genus Acherontia, This particular species, Acherontia atropos, is perhaps the most well-known of these moths.  They are native to the Middle East and Mediterranean region of Europe. This is the only species that is found in Europe, the other two are Asian. This fact, along with the markings on it’s thorax and abdomen, made it easy to identify.  Peter made a comment that the moth didn’t appear to like being harassed and actually hissed at him. This was another dead giveaway! Death’s Head Hawkmoths actually have the unique ability to make a squeaking noise by forcing air through their proboscis to deter predators. This is probably what Peter heard and described as a hiss. This is among several other unique features and behaviors of these moths.

Tomato Hornworm (5-Spotted Hawk Moth)
Creative Commons License photo credit: the_toe_stubber

They belong to the family Sphingidae, known as sphinx moths or hawk moths. Most sphingids have a very long proboscis that helps them to reach the sweet nectar deep inside of flowers. Death’s head moths, on the other hand, have an unusually short and thick proboscis. They have to find other ways of getting food, so they are known to raid bee hives for honey at night. They have a very thick exoskeleton to help protect them from stings and they are immune to the venom. Once inside the hive, they mimic the scent of the other bees, so for the most part they can move around the hive freely. Their thick, strong proboscis is perfect for penetrating the wax covering the honey cells. They will also feed on rotting fruit and tree sap. They can be a seasonal pest to some beekeepers.

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The skull pattern on their thorax has given them somewhat of a negative reputation. Their feisty disposition doesn’t help either. The caterpillars are known to make a loud snapping noise with their mandibles and will bite if they feel threatened. The squeaking noise of the adults has been compared to a melancholy cry.  They are often associated with death and the supernatural. You may recognize them from the movie Silence of the Lambs. In the movie and book, the trademark of the murderer was to place a pupa of this moth in the mouths of his victims. That in itself makes them seem kind of creepy! Also, all 3 of their scientific names are associated with death in Greek mythology. In Europe they were thought of as harbingers of war, death, and pestilence. Their appearance was thought to be a bad omen.  Of course this is all superstition and these are not harbingers of death, but just large beautiful moths, or are they??

Thank you so much for sending in the photo Peter, and I’m glad we could identify this insect for you! It’s amazing what you can find when digging in the dirt. Remember, if you find an odd looking bug and would like to know what it is, snap a picture and send it to us at blogadmin@hmns.org. Happy bug watching!

100 Years – 100 Objects: Giant Longhorn Beetle

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 - meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

This description is from Nancy, the museum’s director of the Cockrell Butterfly Center and curator of entomology. She’s chosen a selection of objects that represent the rarest and most interesting insects in the Museum’s collections, that we’ll be sharing here – and on hmns.org – throughout the year.

The name says it all:  the Titans were a race of giants in Greek mythology, while giganteus is Latin for giant.  This monster from the rainforests of the Amazon basin in South America is the largest beetle in the world, at least in terms of overall size (the African Goliath beetle, a scarab, is heavier).  The giant longhorn is a member of the Cerambycidae or long-horned beetle family, which includes over 20,000 species worldwide.  The family’s common name describes the very long antennae characteristic of most cerambycids – in some species over twice as long as the body.  Male cerambycids typically have longer antennae than females of the same species.  Shown here are a male (wings spread, longer antennae relative to body size) and female (larger, with somewhat shorter antennae). 

Learn more about beetles and their relatives in a visit to the Brown Hall of Entomology, a part of the Cockrell Butterfly Center – a living, walk-through rainforest at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

You can see more images of this fascinating artifact – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the photo gallery on hmns.org.