The Death’s Head Hawkmoth This moth is easily recognisable from its skull markings visible both on the caterpillar and moth.
Case history In September 2007 a 4 year old boy is brought to see me with atopic problems and a hymenopterous allergy – especially to bee stings. (THEME: BEES). In fact he has just come out of hospital following a bee sting next to a swimming pool, which resulted in Quincke’s oedema and suffocation (THEME: SUFFOCATION).
The allergy specialist in charge of his case has taken him through a desensibilisation regime, and on top of the bee allergy he has discovered allergies to nuts (eg almonds, hazelnuts), and to dust mites.
He has also suffered many attacks of bronchitis in his early infancy, and reacted badly to the numerous vaccinations he was given then. After each one he developed a fever, and contracted a virus. His family life is, to say the least, unstable. His father is no longer around, and his mother has had 3 live-in boyfriends since his departure, so he’s never had a constant father-figure. His real father is now living with another woman, by whom he has 3 more children. The little boy visits them every fortnight. He loves playing, he finds concentration difficult, and he enjoys stories about pirates and their emblem: the skull and crossbones. He regularly dresses up as a pirate, and keeps his sword by his bed… (THEME: PIRATE) His alimentary preferences are strongly for honey, and sweet things. This young boy fits the butterfly profile because of his multiple father-loss, which must give him a breakdown of security. His enjoyment of dressing up is also typically butterfly. This led to me prescribing ACHERONTIA ATROPOS at 1M, because of his pirate fixation, a well as the beesting allergy – since this butterfly has a strong affiliation, in its natural life, with bees.
Reaction The little boy calmed down and became more at ease. All the same, a period of desensibilisation was agreed, against hymenopterous venoms. A month later all allergic reaction seems to have disappeared, as has the bronchitis.
Comments The link of this butterfly with bees is key. And with the young patient there is a pathological link with the Death’s Head Hawkmoth. Put this together with the bees, the desire to dress up as a pirate, and the cutaneous allegic reaction, and the connection was obvious.
The characteristics of the Acherontia atropos Scientific Classification Kingdom: Animalia Phylum: Arthropoda Class: Insecta Order: Lepidoptera Family: Sphingidae Subfamily: Sphinginae Genus: Acherontia Species: Acherontia atropos As with all Sphingidae, the Death’s Head Hawkmoth has a massive fusiform body, with feathery antennae and wings which, when unfolded flat, form a ‛‛roof” to the abdomen at a characteristic angle. The caterpillars possess a horn (scolus) at the end of their abdomen, on the eighth segment. The front of their body has the vaguely Sphynx-like marking which gives the Sphingidae their name. They have miniscule, virtually invisible bristles. The adult moth bears the famous skull-shaped marking on the dorsal part of its thorax, and its body is covered in thick black and yellow hairs, like a large hornet. The skull-shaped marking has given it a reputation for bringing bad luck, and is responsible for its evil symbolism in films like Silence of the Lambs and An Andalusian Dog.
The European species is the heaviest (1.5 g for a female that has a 60 mm wingspan), and, the second largest moth, after the Large Night Peacock. Its body measures about 6 cms in length, for an average wingspan of 13 cms. The larvae also becomes very large – up to 15 cm – by devouring various foodstuffs between July and October, notably potato leaves. Evidence of its infiltration into a potato patch can be seen by the droppings it leaves behind, of some considerable size. Like many of the sphingidae family, the larva burrows down into the earth for its chrysalis stage. The shiny chrysalis is a dark brown, slightly reddy colour.
Migration patterns The species can be found in the Mediterranean basin, Africa – as far flung as the island of La Réunion – and in part of Asia. The European variety winters in the south, and migrates in summer up as far as the borders of Scandinavia. They have become rare in urban or intensively farmed environments. The adults emerge from September to October, ready to start their flights south.
Reproduction After their early summer migration northwards, the females lay their eggs on the underside of about 50 different plant species, but they particularly favour the potato plant, which their caterpillars, once born, will start to devour with great ferocity. After 20 days of growth, during which they shed their skins four times, the larva burrows into the earth, transforming into a chrysalis in an underground chamber, reemerging as an adult in a period varying between 20 days and two months. Bees and honey This large moth adores honey. It finds hives or nests and penetrates them through the entry hole. Insensitive to venom and protected by its bristly coat and wing scales, it is able to shrug off attacking bees by rapidly fluttering its wings on its way to the comb. Once there, its short, solid horn easily pierces the full cells. However, occasionally, gorged on honey, it finds itself unable to get out through the narrow entrance, whereupon it it suffocated by a band of irate bees. In such cases the body is then covered in propolis in order to evict the decomposing intruder.
Actually, stories of hives being destroyed by Death’s Head Hawkmoths are fairly anecdotal in Europe, since they have become very rare: victims of insecticides and light pollution from urban lighting, which plays havoc with their natural night navigation systems. This even seems, for reasons as yet unknown, to upset their reproductive cycles (possibly having a significant impact on their hormones…) On the African continent however, where they do not face such threats, they still represent a real apicultural enemy.
It is the only moth in the world which is capable, when it is attacked, of producing an aggressive squealing sound (up to 280 hertz), emitted by expelling a strong gust of air across a small vibrating blade situated at the opening of the pharynx of the adult and caterpillar.
The key paediatric symptoms of ACHERONTIA ATROPOS 1. Feeling abandoned As with all butterflies.
2. Link with honey and bees These children can have allergies to bee stings. They can also be mad about honey.
3. Cutaneous symptoms Often urticaria or eczema. Also Quincke’s oedema.
4. Good remedy for mercurial, restless children, link with pirates These indications are found in butterfly children who suffer from attention deficit disorder. They also love pirate stories and dressing up.
5. Suffocation All the provers have shown signs of suffocation. (As we know, this moth can die by being suffocated in a bee hive…)
In conclusion: knowing about butterflies in general, and ACHERONTIA ATROPOS characteristics in particular, can lead to its prescription in very precise cases. It is interesting to note the common points between this moth’s life cycle and the two existing provings.
Author: Patricia Le Roux, MD. Extracted from the book ‘Butterflies’ published by Narayana Edition. Source:

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