Death's-head Hawk-moth Sphingidae

Acherontia atropos (Linnaeus, 1758)

Description: Wingspan 102-135mm. The forewings are mainly black suffused with brown with some patches of lighter scales. The abdomen has a wide dorsal stripe with yellow patches on the sides. The thorax is marked with the skull-shaped marking from which it takes its name. The hindwings are bright yellow with two thick, black crosslines.

Key Identification Features:

Sets:  male upperside

Flight Period: A migrant species, which does not breed in N. Ireland. Adults have been recorded in May, June, August, September and October.

Status: A large impressive species that occasionally, when conditions are favourable, appears in N. Ireland in very small numbers. Most of the records are from Down and other eastern counties. In 1956 seven adults were recorded which is the largest known number in any single year in N. Ireland. Most of the records emanate from the general public, who find the moth by day at rest on walls or fences. In Britain it appears more frequently especially in southern and eastern parts, where adults as well as larva and occasionally pupa have been found.

Ecology: Often referred to as the "Bee Robber" by early entomologists in Ireland, this species was also known as the Jasmine and Bee Tiger Hawk-moth before its name was changed to the Death's Head Hawk-moth, by which we know it today. Unlike other species in the family, the Death's Head has a short proboscis and so cannot obtain nectar from deep, tubular flowers. The moth is known to raid beehives for honey. When in the hive it emanates a squeaking sound that apparently has a calming effect on the bees and so it is not attacked. Adults have also a liking for sap exuded by trees. It is highly unlikely that the larvae (distinctive as they are) could survive to maturity in Ireland. Abroad it is a continually brooded species producing at least two generations a year. The larva feed on the leaves of potato and other species of Solanaceae. This species has been successfully reared in captivity on garden privet.

World Distribution: Across Europe Africa and the Middle East

Bradley & Fletcher number: 1973 Agassiz number: 69.005

Additional information:

UK Moths account


 Thompson, R. S. & Nelson, B., 2003 (Oct 2). [In] The Butterflies and Moths of Northern Ireland