at death's door

Death's-head Hawkmoth

The name Death's-head Hawkmoth refers to any one of the three species (A. atropos, A. styx and A. lachesis) of moth in the genus Acherontia. The former species is primarily found in Europe, the latter two are Asian, and most uses of the common name refer to the European species. These moths are easily distinguishable by the vaguely skull-shaped pattern of markings on the thorax. All three species are fairly similar in size, coloration, and life cycle.

These moths have several unusual features. All three species have the ability to emit a loud squeak if irritated. The sound is produced by expelling air from the pharynx, often accompanied by flashing of the brightly-colored abdomen in a further attempt to deter predators. All three species are commonly observed raiding beehives of different species of honey bee for honey; A. atropos only attacks colonies of the well-known Western honey bee, Apis mellifera. They are able to move about in hives unmolested because they mimic the scent of the bees.


Eggs are laid singly under old leaves of the hostplant, and are green or grey-blue. None of the three species is restricted to a single family of host plant; hosts are typically in the families Solanaceae, Verbenaceae, Oleaceae, Bignoniaceae, and others. The larvae are stout, reaching 120-130 mm, with a prominent tail horn. All three species have three larval color forms: typically, green, brown, or yellow. Larvae do not move much, and will click their mandibles or even bite if threatened. When mature, they burrow underground and excavate a small chamber where they pupate.


The skull pattern has helped these moths, particularly A. atropos, earn a negative reputation, such as associations with the supernatural and evil. A. atropos has been prominently featured in art and movies (e.g., The Silence of the Lambs; see A. atropos).

The species names atropos, styx and lachesis are all death-related. The first refers to the member of the Moirae who cuts the threads of life of all beings in Greek mythology; the second to the river of the dead, also in Greek mythology; and the last refers to the Moira who allots the correct amount of life to a being. In addition the genus name Acherontia is derived from Acheron, a river in Greece that was believed in Greek Mythology to be a branch of the river Styx.


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