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Probably one of the most impressive moths of all is the squirrel hawk moth. You can find out everything you need to know about Acherontia atropos here.

In a nutshell

  • owes its name to a distinctive pattern on its back
  • comes mostly on migratory flights from Africa to Europe
  • largest butterfly to be found in our country

The name

The skull hawk moth owes its name to the distinctive skull-like markings on the top of its thorax. However, no conclusions can be drawn from the body markings about its behavior or its way of life. This also becomes clear when looking at its biological name Acherontia atropos.

Occurrence and way of life

This impressive moth from the species family of hawkmoths is most widespread in the tropics of Africa. However, smaller populations can still be found in southern Europe. From there, the animals advance as migratory butterflies to Central and Northern Europe.

Source: No machine-readable author provided. BetacommandBot assumed (based on copyright claims)., Acherontia atropos, emerged DH 060 06 12 27-02 cr, Edited by Plantopedia, CC BY-SA 2.5

Open, bushy habitats are preferred. Nightshade plants, such as the potato, are used for laying eggs and as food for the caterpillars. Typical habitats are very low, but animals have also been encountered on their migratory flights at altitudes of up to 3,000 meters above sea level.

Notice: Because of their sporadic appearance in connection with the clearly recognizable skull pattern, Acherontia atropos was long regarded as a bringer of misfortune, but this lacks any scientific basis.

size and appearance

The dimensions of the squirrel butterfly, which are impressive from a European point of view, are due to its origin in tropical regions:

  • Wingspan males: 90 to 115 millimeters
  • Wingspan females: 100 to 122 millimeters, rarely up to 130 millimeters
  • Body length around 60 millimeters
  • Body diameter around 20 millimeters
  • Weight males 2 to 6 grams
  • Weight females 3 to 8 grams
  • Antennae length males 10 to 14.5 millimeters
  • Antennae length females 10 to 13 millimeters

The Caterpillar

Source: Harald Süpfle, Acherontia atropos 03 (Harald Süpfle), edited by Plantopedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

The impressive caterpillars of the Acherontia atropos can be 120 to 130 millimeters long. Their coloration varies and when fully grown usually oscillates in the green-yellowish, brown or yellow-orange range. Freshly hatched, however, they are only 6 millimeters long and show a light yellow coloration, as well as countless pale yellow tubercles all over the body. Like most hawk moths, the larva of the squirrel hawk moth has a distinctive anal horn, which is very distinctive at 2.5 to 3.0 millimeters and has a forked tip. As development progresses, distinctive diagonal stripes develop on the side of the body, which become more and more visible up to the end of the caterpillar stage. The sparse hair, on the other hand, is hardly visible, so that the animals are generally described as "naked".

The adult animal

  • Head and upper part of thorax black-brown to black
  • Top of thorax with eponymous skull pattern in light gray to almost white
  • Underside of thorax and abdomen ocher with broad dark transverse bands
  • Upper side of abdomen variable orange with dark transverse bands
  • Forewings deep brown to dark gray shaded with reddish brown to ocher marbling
  • Light ocher hairs at the base of the wings
  • Body fully scaled with dense hairs
  • Hindwings ocher on top and bottom with two conspicuous transverse bands
  • Coloring continued underside also over forewings
  • Abdomen tapered in males
  • Abdomen bluntly rounded in females


The diet of the squirrel hawk moth is very peculiar and otherwise only known from a few related species. The main food is bee honey. In order to obtain this, the moths penetrate the beehives and open the honeycombs that have already been closed. The fact that the moths are not attacked by the workers of the bee colony is remarkable.

reproduction and lifespan

Source: Alastair Rae from London, United Kingdom, Death's-head Hawk-moth (29531108221), Edited by Plantopedia, CC BY-SA 2.0

In Africa, the moth generations follow one another directly. In Europe, on the other hand, the first animals can usually be found from April, but more often in May. The eggs usually mature inside the female's body during migratory flight and are laid when fully mature. The blue to light green eggs have sizes of 1.5 to almost 2 millimeters. The entire development cycle from the egg to the caterpillar and the pupa to the adult animal takes around 12 weeks, although animals are often encountered that survive the winter in the larval stage.


The squirrel moth is known for its whistling noises, which it emits primarily in the event of danger or unrest. However, only a few species of Acherontia atropos are able to produce sounds at all.

frequently asked Questions

When are the skull hawk moths active?

The animals are mainly nocturnal and can therefore be observed in flight, especially at dusk.

What does the moth do when there is danger?

Unusual is the way the Squirrel Hawkmoth reacts to threats. He whistles and runs around flapping his wings. However, instead of flying away, he hides under the leaves of overhanging plants.

Why is the animal not attacked while eating?

The hawk moth is thought to secrete chemical substances that calm honey bees. It used to be assumed that whistling noises also have a calming effect, but this thesis has now been refuted.

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