A bad omen or surprise visitor?

A Death's Head Hawkmoth seen near Cockburnspath.
A Death's Head Hawkmoth seen near Cockburnspath.

If you ever chance to come across a Death’s Head Hawkmoth you will be surprised that this insect is in fact a moth.

It is the largest moth found in the British Isles with forewings at two inches or 60mm long.

The glossy, metallic looking forewings are dark brown and black, the thorax or main part of the body has a light fawn, furry patch, which often has the shape and markings resembling a human skull (although on the specimen illustrated it is reduced to a few dots).

The abdomen is banded yellow and black, almost like a giant wasp and to cap it all, if you disturb it, it will emit a series of loud squeaks!

The appearance and the whole shape and structure of this creature bears no resemblance to most peoples’ normal conception of a moth and in fact it is quite harmless.

This moth is widespread in Africa and occasionally some migrate all the way to the British Isles.

They are most frequently seen in southern England and a few may find their way to Scotland, the one in the picture was found on a house doorstep near Cockburnspath last week. I wonder if it was a bit disappointed with our weather?

Most adult moths and butterflies feed by drinking nectar from flowers using a long tubular ‘tongue’ (proboscis) but the Death’s Head Hawkmoth has a short tongue unsuitable for feeding in this way.

Surprisingly what it does is, it enters bees nests and hives and steals their honey.

It can enter and move about the hive without being challenged as it deceives the bees by mimicking the scent of the bees and emitting a squeak which resembles that made by a queen bee, therefore it is invisible to the guard bees and can move around the hive and feed on their honey.

The mature caterpillar will grow over five inches long (130mm) and is the largest found in Britain.

When mature its main body colour is normally yellow with blue and white stripes and it has a curled tail horn which is distinctive. If threatened it will click and may even bite.

The favoured food plant is the potato where it will eat the leaves, but it can feed on other members of the Solanaceae, Privet and Lilac leaves.

It pupates in the ground but very seldom overwinters successfully to emerge the next year as our climate is not suitable, therefore all those found here have flown all the way from Africa.

In folklore it was regarded as bad omen due to the skull like marking on its body. The scientific name is Acherontia atropos.