Morbid moths

Blog brandingThere are many fascinating displays in the Museum, but there’s something special about meeting an expert and chatting to them about the collections they love. Every Monday to Thursday our Spotlight Specimens series gives you the chance to do exactly that.

Taking place under the T. rex  in the Main Court at 2.30pm each day, staff from across the collections choose favourite specimens to share with the public. These experts will also be writing a series of Spotlight Specimens blog posts for those of you who can’t make it to the Museum to meet them in the flesh. In this, the first in the series, Gina Allnatt kicks us off with a Halloween special…


It’s October, month of falling leaves and trick-or-treating, so what better way to get into an autumnal mood than to talk about two moths with marvellously morbid names?

What do the Death’s Head Hawkmoth (Acherontia styx) and Black Witch moth (Ascalapha odorata) have in common? They are both associated with the film and novel Silence of the Lambs. The Death’s Head was used in the film, but the moth in the novel was originally the Black Witch. The moth was changed for the film for two reasons: The producers thought that a moth with a skull on its back would look more sinister, and also because it was almost impossible to get live specimens of the Black Witch moth for filming.

Death’s Head Hawkmoth (Acherontia styx)

The author of Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris, may have chosen the Black Witch moth because of the many legends and myths that surround it. In Jamaica it is known as the “Duppy Bat.” In Central and South America it’s known as “Mariposa de la Muerte”, which translates as “Butterfly of the Dead” because there is a myth which claims the moth is a harbinger of death. A less sinister version of this myth suggests that if you find one of these moths in your home it means an ancestor or loved one who recently passed away is paying you a visit.

However, the subtlety of these myths would probably not translate so well on film, so Mr. Death’s Head Hawkmoth took centre stage.  The vernacular name of this moth comes from the skull-like markings on its back. There are actually three species of Death’s Head Hawkmoth- A. atropos, A. styx and A. lachesis. Though the moth mentioned in the film is Acherontia styx, Acherontia atropos was actually used instead.

All Acherontia supplement their diet by raiding the hives of bees for honey. The moths achieve this by using their extremely thick cuticle, which makes them impervious to stings. But the moth also uses another tactic: it is able to emit an odour that is chemically identical to the worker bees’ scent. This fools the bees into thinking the moth is one of their own. They also emit squeaking noises while in the hive. Some scientists posit that the squeak is similar to the noise a queen honeybee emits when she wants the workers to freeze. No one has been able to observe this theory, however.

Black Witch moth (Ascalapha odorata)
Black Witch moth (Ascalapha odorata)

Despite all the myths and legends surrounding the Death’s Head Hawkmoth and Black Witch moth, both are large and harmless species. It is perhaps the fact that most moths are nocturnal which gives rise to so many legends and misinformation about them. It’s often the case that people will love butterflies but don’t like moths. Moths evolved before butterflies, and it is likely that the butterflies people hold dear evolved from day-flying moths (many day-flying moths exist today and are even more colourful than their butterfly counterparts!).

So remember this when you next see a moth (the original butterfly!) fluttering near a lamp as the sun slowly disappears.

Gina Allnatt, Curatorial assistant (Lepidoptera)

Gina will be talking about the Death’s Head Hawkmoth and Black Witch moth at 2.30pm on 28 and 31 October as part of our Spotlight Specimens series, running Monday to Thursday at 2.30pm.

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