Halloween Special! Death and the Hawk Moth

As any insect-phobe will most likely tell you, possibly the worst thing to have in your room at night is a moth. Fluttering erratically, drawn to any light source (strange for a creature of the night) including the one right by your head … If there’s anything that’ll get your heart racing and your pupils dilating, it’s a moth. So this Hallowe’en, I’m here to tell you about a very special moth, an especially large specimen with a skull painted across its back, one that screeches out loud, one that can be found right here in the UK – it’s the Death’s Head Hawk Moth.

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Death’s Head Hawk Moths on Nature’s Library, Manchester Museum

This moth has long been an omen of death and torment – in 1649, they were reportedly seen at the scene of King Charles I’s execution. In 1801, King George III was thrown into one of his infamous fits of madness by two of these moths being found in his residence. In William Holman Hunt’s 1851 painting The Hireling Shepherd, we are expected to see doom between the young lovers because of the death’s head hawk moth clutched in the shepherd’s hand.

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The Hireling Shepherd (1851) by William Holman Hunt

Similarly, it appeared as an omen of doom in Thomas Hardy’s novel The Return of the Native in 1871, followed Bram Stoker’s Dracula where the eponymous character sent them for Renfield to consume in 1897. The most familiar use of this symbol for modern audiences is its use in the film The Silence of the Lambs (1991) – the serial killer would place the pupa of this moth into the mouths of his victims, which inspired the famous poster.

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Silence Of The Lambs movie poster, 1991

Now, for all this scare-mongering… this moth is totally harmless! Far from eating people, it actually has a bit of a sweet tooth, preferring fermenting fruit, tree sap and honey in its adult form. It can produce a scent that mimics bees in order to invade beehives and steal this last treat, an unusual and clever adaptation.
And far from being scary, the noise it makes is actually quite adorable. Don’t believe me? Here’s a video!

Aww! And on that note, a Happy Hallowe’en to all! At least the moths don’t bite.

By Bryony Rigby

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