UK Hawk Moths - Eyed Hawk, Poplar Hawk, Lime Hawk and Elephant Hawk

Hawk Moths from the UK

Towards the end of summer and in early autumn, the large caterpillars of the common species of hawk moths may be found on trees and other food-plants in gardens and parks. They are some 3 inches or more long and carry a spike on their tails. They may look alarming but are perfectly harmless to handle, although not so harmless to the plants and trees they feed upon.

As for the adult moths they emerge from May onward, and in some species, they may even be double-brooded in good years.

Hawk moths

Lime Hawk Moth
Lime Hawk Moth
Eyed Hawk moth
Eyed Hawk moth

British Hawk Moths described

The Eyed Hawk (Smerinthus ocellata) caterpillar is green with a rough skin, which carries 7 oblique whitish stripes on the sides and ends in a blue-green horn. It feeds ravenously on the leaves of apple, poplars and all types of willow and may be found by looking for areas of the tree that have been defoliated.

The pupa is buried in the earth and lies dormant until the following May or June. The Eyed Hawk has mottled brown forewings and beautiful hind-wings of a rosy pink and yellow and carrying conspicuous blue-grey eye spots circled with black. It can be difficult to spot when resting on a tree trunk due to its camouflage but when disturbed it will reveal its eye-spots and there is no question of mistaking it for any other British moth when you see this display.

The Poplar Hawk ( Laothoe populi) eats poplars, as its name suggests, but can also be found on willow and sallow. It can be distinguished from the Eyed Hawk caterpillar because it has yellowish stripes on its sides. The adult can be found from May to August and is mainly a greyish brown, which again renders it hard to see if resting on tree bark. The moth may also look like dead leaves to an untrained eye.

Often seen crawling on roads in August is the caterpillar of the Lime Hawk (Mimas tiliae). These larvae have finished feeding and are looking for some earth to pupate in. They also have striped sides but are slightly smaller and have a blue horn on their tails.

As the name suggests, the caterpillars feed on lime trees which are commonly grown in towns and cities. The adult moth is a very pretty creature, with a pattern of pinkish-grey or brick-red contrasted with olive green on its forewings. The Lime Hawk over-winters as a pupa and can be found resting on trees in May or June.

This is a moth that is far more common than many people would think. I remember once finding a mated pair on a tree trunk outside where I was living at the time. I put them in a jar to take home so I could get some eggs and rear the caterpillars. Some old ladies saw me and asked what I had in the jar. I explained and held it up but they were shocked and one said: "Ethel, he's got flying mice in there!" This made no sense. They both looked alarmed by what they had seen, as if they had never encountered a hawk moth in their lives!

Elephant Hawk moth caterpillar

Elephant Hawk Moth

The Elephant Hawk (Deilephila elpenor ) has the most bizarre looking larva of them all and it often ends up in the news when someone discovers it and thinks it is some sort of small snake, some exotic species or maybe even from another planet!

It is large and brown, dotted with black or green and bears 4 big eye-spots on its head, as well as the characteristic horn at the tail. These larvae feed on willow-herb, especially the common rosebay, but also on fuschia in gardens. They are often found crawling about before pupation in very late summer.

The adult moth has beautiful pink and olive fore-wings and pink and black hind-wings and flies in May and June. It’s a true case of an “ugly duckling” of the insect world!

Copyright © 2011 Steve Andrews. All Rights Reserved.

Elephant Hawk Moth

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Comments 15 comments

Spirit Whisperer profile image

Spirit Whisperer 5 years ago from Isle of Man

There are so many different kinds of moths and we tend to clump them all together in our minds under the label moths.I love the way you have drawn our attention to the diversity in nature and how beautiful that is. Thank you.


Bard of Ely profile image

Bard of Ely 5 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal Author

Thank you for your comments, Spirit Whisperer! I love moths and find them fascinating and very beautiful insects, and of course they are important in the food chain as being a food source for many animals.


GusTheRedneck profile image

GusTheRedneck 5 years ago from USA

Bard of Ely - Sure enough, those caterpillars can eat lots of leaves, but the moths are important to plants because they help to fertilize them for seed production.

Gus :-)))


Bard of Ely profile image

Bard of Ely 5 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal Author

Yes, that is right and there are some flowers that are only pollinated by hawk moths. Thanks for posting, Gus!


RealHousewife profile image

RealHousewife 5 years ago from St. Louis, MO

Interesting as always Bard. I'm a little freaked about things that crawl but you make them seem beautiful:)


Bard of Ely profile image

Bard of Ely 5 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal Author

Well, I think they ARE beautiful!


RealHousewife profile image

RealHousewife 5 years ago from St. Louis, MO

Yes I know! I'll try not to scream next time one comes flying out of no where:)


Harlan Colt profile image

Harlan Colt 5 years ago from the Rocky Mountains

Bard this is awesome. I love small critters, I love to study them. Especially the one's that don't sting or bite. We have similar moths here in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. We have always called them giant moths.

We also have a moth that flys and moves about like a Hummingbird. It is very fast and green. I have never seen one up close, they fly just like a Hummingbird would.

Fun hub Bard...

- Harlan


Bard of Ely profile image

Bard of Ely 5 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal Author

Harlan, the moth you describe sounds like a Hummingbird hawk moth - Google it! Thanks for posting!


D.A.L. profile image

D.A.L. 5 years ago from Lancashire north west England

Hi Bard, a very educational hub enhnaced by the photography. They certainly are interesting insects. I have often observed feeding on the nectar of Honeysuckle flowers and the white campion. Rated up.


Bard of Ely profile image

Bard of Ely 5 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal Author

Thanks for posting and rating this up, D.A.L.!


AdeleCosgroveBray profile image

AdeleCosgroveBray 5 years ago from Wirral, Cheshire, England.

Two summers ago, we had the pleasure of regular visits from a hummingbird hawk moth which took a fancy to our red valerian. I tried to photograph this lovely creature, but my digi is too slow.

One evening, after dusk, I'd gone into the garden to bring in the laundry. There seemed to be an extra peg holding one item to the line. On closer look it was a death's head hawk moth - gorgeous!


Bard of Ely profile image

Bard of Ely 5 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal Author

Excellent news, Adele! We have plenty of both species here and I have reared two Death's Heads.


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 5 years ago from Alberta and Florida

These creatures are strangely beautiful. Thanks for the great photos. Lynda


Bard of Ely profile image

Bard of Ely 5 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal Author

Thank you for posting, Lynda!

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