The Greater Death’s Head Hawk Moth – Acherontia lachesis

THE GREATER DEATH’S HEAD HAWK MOTH Acherontia lachesis
THE GREATER DEATH’S HEAD HAWK MOTH (Acherontia lachesis) by Eric Ramanujam

This is a large moth with a wingspan of 13cm. It is found over much of South and Southeast Asia and quite often seen in Pitchandikulam at certain times of the year (there is a preserved specimen in the reference collection). It is a member of the family Sphingidae (hawkmoths, which are distinguished by their ability to hover) and one of three species of Death’s Head hawkmoths – A. lachesis is the largest member of the genus, hence the name ‘Greater’.

Acherontia moths are also known as ‘bee robbers’ because they feed on honey. Their proboscis is very stout and strong, enabling them to pierce wax cells and suck out honey. In addition, they are adapted to their unique way of life as they can mimic the scent of bees so that they can enter a hive unharmed to get at the honey.

The epithet ‘death’s head’ is because of the vaguely human skull-shaped marking on the thorax. Its defense behaviour is unique – if disturbed while resting, it raises its body from the surface and partially opening and raising its wings emits a startling squeak.

Eggs are laid on a variety of host plants of the families Solanaceae, Verbenaceae, Fabaceae, Olearaceae and Bignoniaceae among others. Mature larvae (caterpillars) attain a length of 12cm and occur in green, yellow and brownish grey forms with oblique body stripes and a tail horn. It is said that the tail horn is venomous but this still has to be verified. When molested the caterpillar throws its head from side to side and produces a repeated clicking noise – it doesn’t seem to use its tail horn in defense. The larvae are predated upon by parasitoids like the Ichneumon wasps and Tachnidae flies which lay their eggs in / on them and their young once they emerge begin feeding on the living host, keeping them alive until they complete their metamorphosis.

Parasitoidy is one of the six major types of parasitism and a very complex phenomena that ranges from a living animal having organisms gradually destroying particular body functions (primarily reproductive and intellectual), through anaesthesia induced creatures being slowly eaten alive to near overt predatorism, but not exactly being so. If one is so inquisitive about the phenomena one can google it, but there is much more to it than meets the eye – in fact the most interesting facts have been hidden away from prying eyes (by whom?) as it does not benefit human / animal rights. Self exploration will benefit those inquisitive enough to delve deeper into the phenomenon and bound to be illuminative at the very least.

Eric Ramanujam,
Principal Investigator (Faunistics)

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