Death's Head Hawkmoth

The death's head hawkmoth may seem pretty startling to us, but they're almost invisible to honey bees.

Death's Head Hawkmoth
Close up of the eyes and nose of the skull on the moth's back.

Close up of the eyes and nose of the skull on the moth's back.


Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Lepidoptera
Family: Sphingidae
Genus: Acherontia


There are three fairly similar species of death's head hawkmoth, all with the identifying "skull" pattern on the top of their thorax. The three species names, atropos, lachesis and styx, all relate to the mythology of death from Ancient Greece.

Death's head hawkmoths can be found throughout Europe, Africa and Asia, with the species Acherontia atropos being the particular hawkmoth that can be found in the UK during the summer months.

Attenborough on the Death's Head Hawkmoth


Single green or blue eggs are laid under the leaves of various host plants during breeding, which go on to feed the largely immobile larvae.

These relatively large larvae have a prominent tail horn and range in colour from green to brown to yellow. If threatened they will click their mandibles or even inflict a nasty bite!

The larvae burrow a small chamber underground in which to pupate into the adult form.

The imposter in David Attenborough's Natural Curiosities ®Humble Bee Films

The imposter in David Attenborough's Natural Curiosities ®Humble Bee Films


As if trying to encourage the legend that surrounds it, death's head hawkmoth's emit an audible squeak if irritated, created by forcing air from its pharynx.

Death's head hawkmoth's are notorious for raiding beehives for honey, emerging unscathed and well-fed.

Mimicking the scent of honey bee pheromones, they are able to push their way inside, past the guards, and move around freely inside the beehive without being attacked. As they are also known to raid domestic beehives, death's head hawkmoths can be irritating pests.

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Myths and Legend

Around the world and throughout history, death's head hawkmoths have been thought of as an evil omen and harbinger of doom.

The death's head hawkmoth appears on the cover and in the story of The Silence of the Lambs and also in Bram Stoker's famous novel feeds the death's head hawkmoth to Renfield.

It is reported that several adult death's head hawkmoths were found in the bedchamber of King George III. Suffering from dementia, the "mad king" may have been exacerbated by the connotations of the death's head's supernatural skull motif and spooky squeaking.

Quick Facts

  • Most moths feed on flower nectar.
  • Larvae can grow to 1.3cm.
  • Wingspan of the adult can reach 12cm.
  • Legend has it they were first seen in the UK at the execution of King Charles I.