|Acherontia lachesis, an old bleached collection specimen showing none of the yellow, orange and red colours of fresh specimens|
The name Death's-head Hawkmoth refers to any one of the three species (A. atropos, A. styx and A. lachesis) of moth in the genus Acherontia. The former species is primarily found in Europe, the latter two are Asian, and most uses of the common name refer to the European species. These moths are easily distinguishable by the vaguely human skull-shaped pattern of markings on the thorax. All three species are fairly similar in size, coloration, and life cycle.
These moths have several unusual features. All three species have the ability to emit a loud squeak if irritated. The sound is produced by expelling air from the pharynx, often accompanied by flashing of the brightly colored abdomen in a further attempt to deter predators. All three species are commonly observed raiding beehives of different species of honey bee for honey; A. atropos only attacks colonies of the well-known Western honey bee, Apis mellifera. They can move about in hives without being disturbed because they mimic the scent of the bees.
Eggs are laid singly under old leaves of the host plant and are green or grey-blue. None of the three species is restricted to a single family of host plant; hosts are typically in the families Solanaceae, Verbenaceae, Oleaceae, Bignoniaceae, and others. The larvae are stout, reaching 120–130 mm, with a prominent tail horn. All three species have three larval color forms: typically, green, brown, and yellow. Larvae do not move much, and will click their mandibles or even bite if threatened. When mature, they burrow underground and excavate a small chamber where they pupate.
The skull pattern and its fanciful associations with the supernatural and evil have fostered superstitious fears of Acherontia species, particularly Acherontia atropos, perhaps because it is the most widely known. The moths' sharp, mouse-like squeaking intensify the effect. Nor is this a new attitude: in the mid 19th century Edward Newman, having earlier mentioned the mark on the thorax wrote: "However, let the cause of the noise be what it may, the effect is to produce the most superstitious feelings among the uneducated, by whom it is always regarded with feelings of awe and terror."
These moths have been prominently featured in art such as German artist Sulamith Wülfing, and movies such as Un Chien Andalou (by Buñuel and Dalí) and The Silence of the Lambs, and in the artwork of the Japanese metal band Sigh's Hail Horror Hail album. They are also mentioned in Chapter 21 of Bram Stoker's Dracula, where Dracula has been sending moths for Renfield to consume. Traditional legend used to hold that the species was first seen in Britain on the execution of Charles I, but it is more likely to have simply become more common by that time, having arrived with the first transportation of potatoes some centuries earlier. Though rarer, it is still occasionally sighted in the country to this day.
The species names atropos, styx and lachesis are all related to death. The first refers to the member of the three Moirai who cuts the threads of life of all beings in Greek mythology; the second to the river of the dead, also in Greek mythology; and the last refers to the Moira who allots the correct amount of life to a being. In addition the genus name Acherontia is derived from Acheron, a river in Greece that was believed in Greek Mythology to be a branch of the river Styx. A picture of the adult Hawkmoth was featured on the cover of the movie The Silence of the Lambs, although the characteristic skull-like pattern is actually a superimposed image of seven naked women posing in the shape of a skull, taken from a work originally by Salvador Dali.
- Moritz, RFA, WH Kirchner and RM Crewe. 1991. Chemical camouflage of the death's head hawkmoth (Acherontia atropos L.) in honeybee colonies. Naturwissenschaften 78 (4): 179-182.
- Newman, Edward. The natural history of British butterflies and moths. Pub: William Glaisher, London, ca 1870. Downloaded from: 
- Denis Larionov & Alexander Zhulin. "The New Forest: its history and its scenery by John Richard de Capel Wise, pg. 177". Ebooksread.com. Retrieved 2011-11-01.
- "'Death's Head' caterpillar found (Thursday, 14 August, 2003)". BBC News. 2003-08-14. Retrieved 2011-11-01.
- "The Sphinx- Edgar Allan Poe". Classiclit.about.com. 2009-11-02. Retrieved 2011-11-01.
- "Silence of the Lambs' Hidden Message". Retrieved 2013-03-05.