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.) 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.

32 thoughts on “The Death’s Head Moth visits

    1. It is only the adult that can take the honey, so enter it has, as much as that looks difficult. I do not think it would have gone through the metal grill but must have squeezed through the narrow wooden entry above the grill. Amelia

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    1. You are correct, this was the moth used in the “Silence of the Lambs” film, however, in the book it was the pupae of the Black Witch moth that the killer used. So did the film makers get it wrong or did the Death’s Head moth snitch the role because it was more photogenic? Amelia

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  1. Hello A & K,
    What a fascinating post, with wonderful photos and details. I really like the detail too that the moth may have a chemical camouflage veil in its cuticle chemistry. Amazing. I wonder if it’s a nocturnal moth , and so would normally enter a hive at night, or whether it’s active during the day? The caterpillar too is lovely, though I’m guessing many of them would soon chomp through whatever their preferred larval food plants are. Sorry to hear the hornets are still battling with your bees,
    best wishes

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    1. It is a night flying moth and rests by day in foliage. It folds its wings under its body and the dark upper side of the anterior wings provide a good camouflage. It enters the bee hives at night, forcing its way past the guard bees to get at the honey stores inside. It is felt that the thick pelt and cuticle could protect it from bee stings as well as the its odour and perhaps resistance to the venom. My specimen looked as if it had been overcome by bee stings fairly rapidly as its wings were not at all damaged. If it had been trapped in the muzzle I would have expected the wings to become tattered in its efforts to escape. Amelia


    1. I think the first thing to do is find out how to join the local association and sign up for their beginner’s class. Usually you can get a discount subscription to your national beekeeping magazine which is also very useful. You can make acquaintances who keep bees, so that it avoids finding non-beekeeping friends dozing gently in their chairs while you are explaining to them all the fun things you have been doing with the bees. Does the hive contain bees or is your husband hoping to catch a swarm in the spring? I look forward to seeing photographs of his handsome Italian bees. Amelia

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        1. Spring is the best time to start. We managed to catch two swarms in our garden in our first spring of beekeeping. That is another point – it is often advised to keep more than one hive. Two are not much more work than one. 🙂

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    1. I don’t think you get the proper notion of its beauty from a photograph. It was the beautiful furry pelt that impressed me the most. It was not a texture I associate with insects but more with mammals. I found other videos of it on YouTube fascinating when it was alive and moving. However, I am unlikely to see it alive as it is a night flying moth so I would only come across it by day if I accidentally disturbed its roosting place. Amelia

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        1. I had noticed while looking at YouTube that people were raising these as pets. I find the concept of pets rather difficult at the best of time but I forgive the journalist for succumbing to the desires of his daughter on this occasion because it has prompted them to think about the issue of non-native species. I can imagine it making for the nearest hives in Norfolk and having a brief spree before it succumbs to the U.K. winter. Amelia


    1. We have found that the mesh muzzle helps against sustained attack from the Asian hornet. I know nothing that works 100% The hornets come but the bees are protected especially when they are not flying actively. I believe that keeping the hornets from constantly harassing the guard bees puts the hive under less stress. We bought the muzzles. Amelia

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  2. Pingback: Problems in the potager | a french garden

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