Death’s-head Hawkmoth and caterpillar, Acherontia atropos

Death's-head Hawkmoth (Acherontia atropos) emerged from pupa inside shed in Durban South Africa © 2014 Andre Isaacs The Death’s-head Hawkmoth (Acherontia atropos) is the largest moth to be recorded in the British Isles.

It is not a resident species but has strong migratory instincts and is a scarce but annual migrant to the British Isles from southern Europe and Africa.

It is most frequently recorded in the late summer/autumn when it is attracted to light.

It has an extensive distribution being resident as far south as South Africa extending north into southern Europe and parts of Asia.

There are two other species in the genus Acherontia – Acherontia styx and Acherontia lachesis, but neither species have been recorded in the British Isles.

The moth is known for entering bee hives to feed on honey and it has been suggested that the squeaks it emits may deter attacks from bees, although there seems to be some debate over this.

Moritz et al. (1991) says – ‘ that this species makes itself ‘chemically invisible’ to honeybees by mimicking the cutaneous fatty acids of its hosts.’

Death's Head Hawkmoth (Acherontia atropos) skull image on thorax © 2014 Andre Isaacs

It is one of the most distinctive moths, having a wingspan of up to 150mm and a skull like pattern on the thorax, behind the head, which gave rise in folklore to it being known as an omen of death.

A couple of other snippets –

Atropos, the highly recommended publication for keen amateur and professional entomologists derives its name from Acheronita atropos.

The Death’s-head Hawkmoth featured in the film ‘Silence of the Lambs’ is the Eastern Death’s-head – Acoronita styx

The Death’s-head Hawkmoth shown, recorded by Andre Isaacs, was thought to have just emerged from the pupa of a caterpillar seen a few weeks earlier in his garden shed in Durban, South Africa.

Death’s-head Hawkmoth caterpillars

The caterpillars can reach 125mm in length making it the largest caterpillar likely to be found in the UK. They are extremely variable in colour with some of the variations of fully grown caterpillars recorded in the UK and South Africa shown below.

My own understanding of the food plant had been that it was restricted in the Uk to Solanaceae, especially potato, but following the sighting of 2 caterpillars feeding on jasmine in a Hertfordshire garden (see below) I sought further information from Roy Leverton who referred to’ Pittaway in The Hawksmoths of the Western Palearctic who says “principally Solanaceae, especially potato, also Verbenaceae, Oleacea (Ligustrum, Olea and Fraxinus), Beta, Nerium, Buddleja and many other plants.”

So, as Roy helpfully points out, ‘Death’s-head Hawk-moth is a bit unusual in being an Old World species that has largely abandoned its original foodplants in favour of an exotic introduction from the New World – potato.’

So although the caterpillars have indeed been recorded feeding on species of Oleacea, including Jasmine, outside the Uk, I’m unsure whether this has been noted before in the UK.

It is thought that the intensive use of pesticides in the UK has been one of the main causes for the decline of the larvae in recent years, with the small numbers still occurring often reported from organic allotments and garden plots.

Death's Head-hawkmoth caterpillar (Acherontia atropos) Hertfordshire, UK © 2015 Joanne Turton
Those few caterpillars that successfully pupate in the UK appear to be unable to survive the cold winters.

The caterpillars pupate in the soil and in warmer temperatures abroad the adults emerge in 4-6 weeks (ref Porter).

A caterpillar (featured below) found in a Southampton garden by Tony Rockett at the end of October was successfully reared inside, having successfully pupated in November before emerging the following June.

This delayed emergence in cooler conditions was more in keeping with over wintering pupae of most resident British Hawkmoths.

So, with a warming climate, could it successfully one day over winter as a pupa in milder parts of the UK?

Death’s-head Hawkmoth sightings in the British isles

Death's-head Hawkmoth caterpillar yellow form feeding on Jasmine in Hertfordshire, UK © 2015 Joanna Turton Death's-head Hawkmoth caterpillar brown form feeding on Jasmine in Hertfordshire, UK © 2015 Joanna Turton

An interesting record came from Joanna Turton in September 2015 when she found two forms of the Death’s-head Hawkmoth caterpillar, a yellow/green form and a dark form, in her garden in Hertfordshire.

There were several aspects about this sighting that I found particularly interesting.

Modern estate garden with Death's-head Hawkmoth caterpillars © 2015 Joanna Turton
Firstly, that there was was more than one in a single garden – although it seems odd this doesn’t happen more often given the likelihood of a visiting female laying several eggs on a single food plant.

Secondly, it was an example of different colour caterpillar forms hatching from eggs laid (almost certainly) by the same female.

Thirdly, the sighting came from a typical modern estate back garden with no vegetable beds containing potatoes as might have been expected. And there seemed little chance that the caterpillars had wandered in from more suitable habitat as the immediate surrounding land was developed.

Death's-head Hawkmoth caterpillar feeding on Jasmine © 2015 Joanna Turton

There is, of course, the possibility, given this species is popular with commercial breeders, that some reared locally could have been dropped over the wall into the garden – but this seems highly improbable.

Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, the caterpillars were feeding on Jasmine – a food plant that I hadn’t seen referred to as a food plant in this country before.

So a fascinating story and one that suggests they could turn up in any ones garden – I live in hope!

Death's-head Hawkmoth caterpillar (Acherontia atropos) south Buckinghamshire © 2014 Julia SibleyJulia Sibley found this beautifully marked yellow form in her back garden in south Buckinghamshire on the 25th September 2014.

Her garden backs onto farmland so plenty of open fields and natural fruit trees.

This one appears to have had a lucky escape as Julia had to move it to the farm next door to prevent her very large German Shepherd ‘making friends with it’.

Dogs giving large caterpillars a hard time isn’t unknown but reports of cats bringing them into houses and playing with them are quite common-particularly caterpillars of the Elephant Hawkmoth!

Death's-head Hawkmoth caterpillar (Acherontia atropos) © 2014 Katie MullallyIn October 2014 Katie Mullally found another yellow form in her garden in Hillingdon outside London on a back garden bench!

Around her garden there are no vegetable plots or farms within a few miles and even the local parks are a mile away.

Unfortunately, in this case, because the fully grown caterpillar was in wandering mode, presumably searching for somewhere to pupate, there were no clues as to its food source.

Death's head Hawkmoth Southminster Essex © 2015 Daniel Copeland
This adult Death’s-head moth was found by Daniel Copeland outside the front door of his house in Southminster Essex on the 27th September 2015.

Tropical Wings Zoo at South Woodham Ferrers in Essex kindly recommended he contact us to confirm identification and advise what to do next with it as his cat was showing an unhealthy interest.

Daniel’s house is set in a farming community with fields growing potato crops within a mile. So perhaps this was a female that been laying eggs locally and was resting up for the day.

Although a migrant species that’s unlikely to survive the winter at any part of its life cycle I thought it best to suggest he released it that night and let nature takes it course.

Death's-head Hawkmoth caterpillar (Acherontia atropos) The Lizard, Cornwall 7th August © 2014 Frank Johns
Nearer at home in sunny Cornwall recent records included this brown form of caterpillar photographed by Cornish moth expert Frank Johns on the Lizard on the 7th August 2014.

Frank identified it after being contacted by his cousin who farms on the Lizard. So location here wasn’t a surprise being in an agricultural setting close to a known migratory hot spot.

Frank’s last Death’s-head moth was recorded on 18th September 1973 and arrived at a 6 watt heath trap. While a short distance away, as a moth flies, fellow keen moth enthusiast Bernard Hocking at Rospannel Farm near Lands End attracted an adult moth to light on the 1st of October 2011.

Death's-head Hawkmoth caterpillar (Acherontia atropos) found in Geranium flower border near Southampton UK © 2014 Tony Rockett Death's-head Hawkmoth pupating caterpillar (Acherontia atropos) © 2014 Tony Rockett

Jayne and Tony Rockett found this one in a geranium flower border in their garden near Southampton on 28th October 2014. Again it is uncertain what it had been feeding on as it had already left the food plant and was probably about to pupate in the soil of the flower bed. When brought inside it didn’t feed and by the 4th November had pupated in a container filled with soil and leaf litter. The adult moth emerged on 10th June the following year.

Tony and Jayne successfully reared this Death’s-head Hawkmoth by over wintering the pupa in a cool corner of their kitchen before moving it in the spring into a shaded area of the greenhouse.

This gives a useful insight into how under cooler conditions the time scale of a Death’s-head Hawkmoth emergence can be extended from as little as 3 weeks in hot climates to over 30 weeks. see below

South African sightings of Death’s-head Hawkmoths

Death's-head Hawkmoth caterpillar (Acherontia atropos) Durban South Africa © 2014 Andre Isaacs
The high numbers of records received from South Africa suggest the Death’s-head Hawkmoth is a common species.

Andre Isaacs reported two caterpillars from his garden in Durban.

One was actually seen inside his shed looking for somewhere to pupate.

21 days later he found the magnificent adult moth already featured above on the side of the shed.

It seems conceivable that the shed could have reached particularly high temperatures in the late South African Autumn inducing a rapid emergence.

Spanish sightings of Death’s-head Hawkmoths

Death's-head Hawkmoth caterpillar (Acherontia atropos) Alicante, Spain © 2015 Brain Whitmore

Death's-head Hawkmoth caterpillar (Acherontia atropos) Alicante, Spain © 2015 Brain Whitmore

In warmer parts of southern Europe Death’s-head Hawkmoth are a resident and the caterpillars commonly recorded. These two shown above were found on stone floor slabs by Brian Whitmore in his small garden a few miles south of Alicante in late October. It is uncertain what they had been feeding as they had already left their foodplant but close by were bougainvillea, mimosa, a false pepper tree, oleander and lanterna bushes.

Death's-head Hawkmoth caterpillar Algarve Portugal © 2015 Jane Page

Portuguese Death’s head Hawkmoth caterpillar

Jane Page recorded this fine yellow form of Death’s Head Hawkmoth caterpillar on the 23rd November crawling up her garden steps in the eastern Algarve of Portugal.

Jane lives in an area ‘that is limestone- based scrub: carob trees, almond trees, arbutus unedo and pistacia bushes in the main, but has some peppers and chilli plants in pots’

Apparently the Autumn had been very hot.

Once again the foodplant was uncertain as the caterpillar was on the move, presumably to pupate.

Thanks go to all contributors

Joanna Turton, Tony Rocket, Katie Mullally, Andre Isaac, Daniel Copeland, Julia Sibley, Frank Johns, Bernard Hocking, Jane Page and Brian Whitmore for their sightings and use of images. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to include all sightings but your records are greatly appreciated – please keep them coming in. I must also thank Roy Leverton and Hermann Staude in South Africa for their additional help along with the authors of the following references

Recommended reference books

The Colour identification guide to caterpillars of the British Isles by Jim Porter.
The Field guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland by Waring,Townsend and Lewington.
The colour identification guide to moths of the British Isles by Bernard Skinner. Pittaway in The Hawksmoths of the Western Palearctic. Moritz, RFA, WH Kirchner and RM Crewe. 1991. Chemical camouflage of the death’s head hawkmoth (Acherontia atropos L.) in honeybee colonies. Atropos the entomologists magazine which regularly features migratory insects .