a french garden


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The Death’s Head Moth visits

This is Poppy our largest honey bee colony, at the moment.  We have a muzzle in front of her to protect her, somewhat, from the relentless Asian hornets.  About ten days ago I caught sight of what I thought was a leaf on the floor of the muzzle but on closer inspection I could see it was an enormous moth.  Some bees were on its abdomen and the moth looked lifeless, as if it had given up without much of a battle.

I slid the floor open and recovered the moth.  There was no doubt to the identity of the moth but it was its beauty, even in death, that amazed me.

This is Acherontia atropos, the Death’s-Head Hawk -moth, le Sphinx tête de mort.

Velvet would go part way in describing its coat.  It made me think more of a tiger pelt.  I felt a great sympathy for this creature that has no compunction in entering  bee hives and stealing their honey (as a beekeeper my cheeks redden at this point.)  It has been noticed that four long-chain fatty acids are produced by these moths in the same concentration and ratio as in cuticle extracts of honey bees and it has been proposed that this could provide the moths with a “odour disguise” to escape detection as a non-bee intruder.

Dead moths have been found in bee hives, so whatever ploys are used by the moths, they are not always successful.  I do not think Poppy was duped by the intruder and it looked as if he was being stung by the bees.  The quantity of honey that even such a large moth would consume would not endanger the colony as the visit is a short, sharp raid.

I did call the moth “he” as I do believe he is male as I have found a curious brake mechanism that allows the male moths to couple their front and rear wings to allow greater flexibility in movement for mating.  He should also have fluffy male scent glands but he is so generally fluffy that I cannot say I could identify them.

Both the males and females are of similar size and this one measured 12 cm. (4.7 inches) across the wing tips and 6 cm. (2.4 inches) from top to tail.

Another curious fact about this moth is that it can squeak!  (That is when it is alive.)  There is a short video on YouTube (37 sec.) https://youtu.be/ITh0TgJ8a6Y if you would like to hear it.

I had already coincidentally taken a baby photograph of the moth in August.  Already a beauty, as caterpillars go.

In August I had no idea that I would find an adult in a hive.

They are not a welcome arrival in most peoples’ gardens.

When I invert the photograph the death’s head can be seen clearly and the image has always brought with it fear of evil portents.  The traditional solution is to asperge the site with holy water but Poppy is on her own against the hornets and devil’s moth, let’s hope she is not superstitious.

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