Appearance''Acherontia atropos'' is a large hawk moth with a wingspan of 90–130 mm , being the largest moth in some of the regions in which it occurs. The adult has the typical streamlined wings and body of the hawk moth family, Sphingidae. The upper wings are brown with slight yellow wavy lines; the lower wings are yellow with some wide brown waves. It rests during the day on trees or in the litter, holding the wings like a tent over the body.
The moth also has numerous other unusual features. It has the ability to emit a loud squeak if irritated. The sound is produced by expelling air from its proboscis. It often accompanies this sound with flashing its brightly marked abdomen in a further attempt to deter its predators. It is commonly observed raiding beehives for honey at night. Unlike the other species of ''Acherontia'', it only attacks colonies of the well-known Western honey bee, ''Apis mellifera''. It is attacked by guard bees at the entrance, but the thick cuticle and resistance to venom allow it to enter the hive. It is able to move about in hives unmolested because it mimics the scent of the bees.
The British entomological journal Atropos takes its name from this species.
NamingThe species name ''Atropos'' is related to death, derived from ''atropos'' that may not be turned, from a-1 + -tropos from trepein to turn. Atropos was one of the three Moirai, goddesses of fate and destiny. In addition the genus name ''Acherontia'' is derived from Acheron, a river in Greece, which in Greek mythology was known as the river of pain, and was one of the five rivers of the Greek underworld.
Distribution''Acherontia atropos'' occurs throughout the Middle East and the Mediterranean region, much of Africa down to the southern tip, and increasingly as far north as southern Great Britain due to recently mild British winters. It occurs as far east as India and western Saudi Arabia, and as far west as the Canary Islands and Azores. It invades western Eurasia frequently, although few individuals successfully overwinter.
CulturalIn spite of the fact that ''Acherontia atropos'' is perfectly harmless except as a minor pest to crops and to beehives, the fancied skull pattern has burdened the moth with a negative reputation, such as associations with the supernatural and evil. There are numerous superstitions to the effect that the moth brings bad luck to the house into which it flies, and that death or grave misfortune may be expected to follow. More prosaically, in South Africa at least, uninformed people have claimed that the moth has a poisonous, often fatal, sting .
''Acherontia atropos'' has been featured in art , Bram Stoker's "Dracula" and in movies, notably in ''Un chien andalou'' and the promotional marquee posters for ''The Silence of the Lambs''. In the latter film the moth is used as a calling card by the serial killer "Buffalo Bill", though the movie script refers to ''Acherontia styx'', and the moths that appear in the film are ''Acherontia atropos''. In ''The Mothman Prophecies'' this moth is referred to. It also appears in the music video to Massive Attack's single, "Butterfly Caught."
The Death's-head moth is mentioned in Susan Hill's gothic horror novel, ''I'm the King of the Castle'' as it is used to instil fear in one of the young protagonists.
John Keats mentioned the moth as a symbol of death in his ''Ode to Melancholy'', "Make not your rosary of yew-berries, / Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be / Your mournful Psyche".
In José Saramago's novel ''Death With Interruptions'', ''Acherontia atropos'' appears on the American edition's cover, and is a topic that two characters mull over.
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