by Jeannie Swales
Witches and ghosts may rule supreme tonight, but for genuine spookiness, it’s hard to beat the death’s-head hawk-moth.
Quite apart from its sinister appearance – how could nature have come up with something so akin to a human skull on its thorax? – it exhibits various other macabre characteristics. It squeaks loudly when irritated or threatened, a sound achieved by expelling air from its pharynx. A squeak may not sound particularly spooky, but coming from a moth? Chilling.
And it preys on the cuddliest and most human-friendly of all insects, the honey bee, raiding beehives for honey. It’s believed to be able to move around the hives undisturbed by mimicking the scent of the bee.
Understandably, this collection of characteristics, coupled with its cloaking wings, has made the death’s-head hawk-moth a potent cultural symbol. In recent years, it’s become familiar to many people through the book and movie The Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris. In the book, the killer places the pupa of a Mexican black witch moth in the mouths of his victims. In the movie, the black witch was replaced by the death’s-head, presumably for increased dramatic effect.
But way before FBI agent Clarice Starling got in on the act, the death’s-head was inspiring fear. English entomologist Edward Newman (1801-1876) commented on its squeak: “However, let the cause of the noise be what it may, the effect is to produce the most superstitious feelings among the uneducated, by whom it is always regarded with feelings of awe and terror.”
Horror writers Edgar Allen Poe and Bram Stoker both use the moth to dramatic effect – in the latter’s book Dracula, set partly in Whitby, the vampire sends them to the hapless Renfield to eat.
The moth’s binomial name, Acherontia atropos, derives from Greek mythology. Acheron is the river of pain in the underworld and Atropos is the Fate who cuts the thread of life.
The death’s-head hawk-moth isn’t native to this country, but a few do reach here each year. Our pictured specimens are probably Victorian, and from the entomology section of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects collected by the Borough of Scarborough, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. They have inevitably become a little faded over the years: to get a sense of the sheer size and beauty of the real thing – and to hear that famous squeak! – pay a visit to the Natural History Museum website here: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/species-of-the-day/evolution/acherontia-atropos/
Happy Hallowe’en from all at Scarborough Museums Trust!