To the superstitious, I was taking a chance, cradling death in my hands – dull black eyes staring at me blankly, dark wings drawn around the body like a cloak, a skull emblazoned on its back. This gothic night-flyer, harbinger of doom and source of dread down the centuries – with cameo roles in horror movies to its name – should have sent a shiver down my spine.
But then it gave an endearing squeak, like a mouse – an unlikely utterance, more comical than menacing. I was holding an insect of almost legendary status – a death’s-head hawkmoth, a scarce migrant species from southern Europe and Africa with a 12cm wingspan and body thick as a cigar, making it one of Britain’s biggest moths.
This particular heavyweight adult on my palm – the first I have ever encountered – was West Country-born. Back in late August, a yellow caterpillar, a hand-span in length, was chanced across by a friend in my Dartmoor village. Alerted by his dog, barking in alarm as if it had found a small snake, he came across the larva in the grass and brought it over.
I contacted the Devon-based entomologist John Walters, who confirmed it was the caterpillar of a death’s-head hawkmoth (Acherontia atropos), well fed on potato foliage and looking for somewhere to pupate. He offered to see it through to adulthood, and after the hefty chrysalis hatched this month, John returned with the adult so I could have a glimpse before its release.
Its alarming size and rather sinister looks – notably the skull-shaped pattern on its coal-black thorax – have perhaps understandably led to this moth featuring as a portent of ill omen in novels, paintings and films, most famously appearing on the poster for The Silence of the Lambs. But it is a harmless species of subtle beauty. Beneath half-spread wings, marbled with brushstrokes of brown and flecked with a galaxy of tiny white dots, I spot flashes of amber and slate-blue on the abdomen.
Death’s-head hawkmoths even engage in Halloween-style trick or treat. That unusual party trick of being able to squeak deters honeybees from attacking as the moth raids hives in search of a sweet treat.
Set free, this strong flyer may now be heading south for warmer climes – a dark traveller journeying by night, spreading myths and mystery wherever it goes.
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