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The Death's Head Hawk Moth and Hawk Moths of Tenerife and the Canary Islands

Updated on January 7, 2013

Hawk Moths are very big

Tenerife in the Canary Islands has several species of hawk moth that live and breed on the island, and, with the exception of the Hummingbird Hawk Moth (Macroglossum stellatarum), all of them are very big insects. The Death's Head Hawk Moth (Acherontia atropos) is the biggest of them all and is a very rare insect in the UK where it is occasionally found as a migrant species.

The Spurge Hawk Moth (Hyles euphorbiae) is another very rare moth that sometimes migrates and breeds in Great Britain, as is the Silver-striped or Vine Hawk Moth (Hippotion celerio). On Tenerife you are far more likely to encounter these magnificent insects.

Hawk Moths

Death's Head Hawk Moth
Death's Head Hawk Moth
Death' Head Hawk caterpillar
Death' Head Hawk caterpillar
Vine Hawk Moth caterpillar
Vine Hawk Moth caterpillar

The Death Head's Hawk Moth

The Death Head's Hawk Moth is a most unusual insect in many ways. The skull-like marking on its thorax as well as the bands on its body that could be likened to a ribcage have made it an insect that has been at the centre of various superstitions and it has been regarded as a bad omen.

Its sinister appearance and reputation earned it a place in the film Silence of the Lambs starring Sir Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster.

This very large hawk moth can squeak as an adult and as caterpillar it can make a clicking noise. Death Head's Hawk Moths raid beehives to steal the honey and cause a serious problem for bee-keepers in some parts of the world.

The caterpillar comes in three variations. There is a green one, a yellow caterpillar and a brown variety of the larva. Because of its large size and colouration it is a most spectacular creature.

They feed on a wide variety of plants in the Solanaceae (Nightshade family), including Potato plants, Thorn-apple (Datura stramonium) and Deadly Nightshade (Atropa belladonna), as well as trees such as the Tulip Tree (Spathodea campanulata) and the Lantana shrub (Lantana camara). This large choice of food plants of course gives the species a distinct advantage over other species that can only eat a limited range of plants.

The Death Head's Hawk Moth is a migrant and sometimes it reaches the UK where it lays its eggs on Potato plants. A very big moth indeed, it is a powerful flyer and can travel long distances.

Because this species has a very wide range of food plants for the caterpillars it can live in and colonise a wide range of habitats and different areas of the world. If one type of plant is unavailable then it can lay its eggs on another and this means that it has a better chance of survival that species which are very restricted in their options.

More Hawk Moth photos

Spurge Hawk Moth caterpillar. Photo by Daniel Schwen
Spurge Hawk Moth caterpillar. Photo by Daniel Schwen
Hummingbird Hawk Moth. Photo by IronChris.
Hummingbird Hawk Moth. Photo by IronChris.

The other Hawk Moths

The Silver-striped and Striped Hawk Moths are also both very rarely encountered in Britain but are fairly common in Tenerife. The caterpillars mostly feed on Grape Vines and the former of these two moths is also known as the Vine Hawk Moth. Its caterpillar can also eat species of Galium (Bedstraw)and Daucus (Carrot) . The larva of the Striped Hawk Moth can eat species of Rubia (Madder) and Euphorbia (Spurge) in addition to Vines.

The large Convolvulus Hawk Moth has greyish wings and a pink and black-banded body.Its wing-colouration gives the moth great camouflage if it is resting on a tree trunk or fence.

Its caterpillar eats species of Convolvulus (Bindweed), as its name suggests, and can also feed on species of Rumex (Sorrel). This moth is another migrant that is sometimes seen in the UK.

The Spurge Hawk has a very pretty caterpillar that is coloured yellow and black with white dots, and orange-red spots, head and tail-spike. As its name suggests its food plants are species in the spurge family (Euphorbiaceae), of which there are many endemic species in Tenerife and the Canary Islands. It is another rare hawk moth sometimes found in the UK, where its larva eats the Sea Spurge (E.paralias) that grows in sand dunes.

And finally, there is the Hummingbird Hawk Moth. This moth flies by day in the bright sunshine and has the ability to hover in front of flowers it is probing for nectar with its very long proboscis. This behaviour often gets it mistaken for the little birds that also hover and feed from flowers.

The caterpillar of the Hummingbird Hawk Moth feeds on Bedstraw and Madder species as well as the Canary Island endemic known as Balo (Plocama pendula).

This unusual species is another migrant hawk moth and has been seen in increasing numbers in the UK over recent years.

All of the hawk moths are fascinating insects with large caterpillars that all have a spike on their tails. Tenerife is a good place for spotting the species that are very rare in the UK.

Copyright © 2012 Steve Andrews. All Rights Reserved.


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    • Tenerife Islander profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Andrews 

      8 years ago from Tenerife

      Thanks for posting! Yes, Elephant Hawks are very beautiful moths and amazing caterpillars!

    • Nettlemere profile image


      8 years ago from Burnley, Lancashire, UK

      Interesting - my most exciting moth finds in the UK have been elephant hawk moths. Enjoyed reading about other species.

    • Tenerife Islander profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Andrews 

      9 years ago from Tenerife

      Thank you, Horse Feathers! Yes, Humming Bird Hawks live here too though not seen one for a while.

    • Horse Feathers profile image

      Horse Feathers 

      9 years ago from Indiana USA

      Very cool bug and Hub!

      Have you ever seen a humming Bird moth?

    • Tenerife Islander profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Andrews 

      10 years ago from Tenerife

      Death's Head Hawk Moths I'd estimate are about 5 inches across their wingspan.

    • Ms Chievous profile image


      10 years ago from Wv

      Oh! I have seen the Hummingbird Hawk moth here in WV. So how big do the Hawkmoths get on the island?

    • Tenerife Islander profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Andrews 

      10 years ago from Tenerife

      Thank you, Sage!

    • Sage Williams profile image

      Sage Williams 

      10 years ago

      Wow, what interesting insects the Death Head's Hawk Moths are. I love the fact that it can make squeaking and clicking sounds. My favorite is the Hummingbird Hawk Moth. This was a great little hub. I learned a lot.

      Thanks so much,



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