While cutting the grass at our Italian bee research facility I came across what is most likely the largest and without question the most beautiful caterpillar I have ever encountered.
I had no idea what it was and initially could not find anything like it on Google so I emailed the photo to butterfly expert Robert Goodden from Worldwide Butterflies (wwb.co.uk).
I asked “Any idea what this is?”
Robert responded “It’s a Death’s Head Hawkmoth larva. Quite a find!”
It then occurred to me that only the day before and completely by coincidence we found a strange looking moth in amongst the pile of bees at the bottom of a failed colony.
So I sent that photo and asked: “Quite a name, is this it’s Mother? She had a fight with our bees….. no one did very well!”. I should point out that we later concluded that this colony had failed due to a particularly bad Varroa infestation and the moth had been there for some time when we discovered it.
Robert responded: “You’re absolutely right! That’s a remarkable photo. This species is known for entering bee hives in search of the honey”.
Further research revealed that the Deathshead Hawkmoth or Acherontia atropos is a fascinating creature. It’s a migratory moth primarily found in Europe, we found our example(s) in northern Tuscany. In spring it is also a rare migrator to Britain and with a wing span of up to 13cm it is without question Britain’s largest species of moth. There are two other species of the moth genus Acherontia, Acherontia styxand Acherontia lachesis which can be found in Asia.
It gets its name from the scull like marking seen on its thorax. The outer wings of the moth are predominantly dark brown in colour with lighter, slightly wavy grey, brown and yellow lines. The lower wings and underside are a relatively bright yellow with some brown wavy lines.
When discovered in bee hives they most often appear a uniform light yellowy brown colour as seen in the second photograph. This applies to the two examples we have now found and we have been shown a further five examples by Antonio Felicioli from the Department of Veterinary science at Pisa University. As Antonio explained, the change in colour is due to propolisation by the bees.
When stealing honey, the moth gets past guard bees using its thick cuticle and resistance to bee venom. Once inside the hive the moth can move around unmolested by mimicking the scent of the bees . It has also been rumoured that the moth can generate a sound that ‘paralyses’ the bees. It is certainly true that all three species have the ability to emit a loud squeak if irritated (the sound is produced by expelling air from the pharynx). A more credible theory suggests that this sounds like the queen piping which can make the bees ‘freeze’.
Most likely due to the scull like figure, the Death’s-head Hawkmoth has always had a negative reputation in folklore, being associated with the supernatural and evil. Indeed in South Aftrica it is wrongly rumoured that it has a poisonous, even fatal, sting.
The death’s-head Hawkmoth has appeared in poems by John Keats, Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” and even Massive Attacks music video “Butterfly Caught”. Possibly most famously of all, the moth appeared in the Oscar winning film ‘Silence of the Lambs’ where the pupa was used as the calling card by the serial killer. Interestingly, while the script refers to the Acherontia styx it is the Acherontia atropos that appears in the film. Not only does it feature in the centre of the film’s promotional poster but also on the front cover of the original novel.
More information about the Death’s-Head Hawkmoth can be found here:
 Moritz, RFA, WH Kirchner and RM Crewe. 1991. Chemical camouflage of the death’s head hawkmoth (Acherontia atropos L.) in honeybee colonies. Naturwissenschaften 78 (4): 179-182.