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.
|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 email@example.com. Happy bug watching!