a french garden

The Death’s Head Moth visits

31 Comments

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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Author: afrenchgarden

Born in Scotland I have lived in England, Iran, USA and Greece. The house and land was bought twelve years ago in fulfilment of the dream of living in France that my Francophile husband nurtured. We had spent frequent holidays in France touring the more northerly parts and enjoying the food, scenery, architecture and of course gardens. However, we felt that to retire in France and enjoy a more clement climate than we currently had in Aberdeen we would need to find somewhere south of the river Loire but not too south to make returning to visit the UK onerous. The year 2000 saw us buying our house and setting it up to receive us and the family on holidays. The garden was more a field and we were helped by my son to remove the fencing that had separated the previous owners’ goats, sheep and chickens. We did inherit some lovely old trees and decided to plant more fruit trees that would survive and mature with the minimum of care until we took up permanent residence. The move took place in 2006 and the love hate relation with the “garden” started. There was so much to do in the house that there was little energy left for the hard tasks in the garden. It was very much a slow process and a steep learning curve. Expenditures have been kept to a minimum. The majority of the plants have been cuttings and I try to gather seeds wherever I can. The fruit trees have all been bought but we have tender hearts and cannot resist the little unloved shrub at a discount price and take it as a matter of honour to nurse it back to health. This year I have launched my Blog hoping to reach out to other gardeners in other countries. My aim is to make a garden for people to enjoy, providing shady and sunny spots with plants that enjoy living in this area with its limestone based subsoil and low rainfall in a warm summer. Exchanging ideas and exploring mutual problems will enrich my experience trying to form my French garden.

31 thoughts on “The Death’s Head Moth visits

  1. Interesting. It seems too large to get through the guard.

    Liked by 1 person

    • 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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  2. What a strange and beautiful moth. It’s one I’ve never heard of.

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  3. Egads! That thing is scary! It looks like the moths in ‘Silence of the Lambs’.

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    • 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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  4. A beautiful moth in all stages of its life cycle. The poor bees with so many things ranged against them, pest and decease. It is a wonder they ever manage to produce any honey.

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  5. 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
    Julian

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    • 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

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  6. Great images of the moth. My husband has just been given a hive by a friend, so I’ve told him to read all your posts! Any tips for a complete novice?

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    • 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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  7. What a huge moth. A handsome specimen too in all life cycles.

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  8. What a beautiful creature. I’d love to see one in person.

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    • 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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  9. Another interesting lesson for me. Thanks for sharing.

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  10. Spectacular, as you say, even in death!

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  11. How interesting, I had never heard of these, so thank you.

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  12. What an astonishing creature! I had no idea they raided hives for honey, Amelia, so you’ve taught me something today.

    We’ve had a few confirmed reports of Asian hornets over her in the UK now. Not good news for bees. 😦

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  13. Does your mesh guard work against Asian hornet ? Did you make it or buy it?

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    • 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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  14. A scary moment, Jessica… like a nasty Tarot card. By coincidence (see earlier comments) I encountered my first Black Witch moth this year. I wrote about it, the cultural significance and the ‘Silence of the Lambs’ link at https://rollingharbour.com/2017/04/10/black-witch-moth-harbinger-of-death-or-lottery-banker/ I survived the experience. RH

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