There are many books which take a detailed look at a particular group of insects; the ‘Animal’ series from Reaktion Books, with titles such as ‘Beetle’, ‘Wasp’ and ‘Fly’, spring to mind as examples. Such titles give the opportunity for an author to examine that group not only from the ecological or taxonomic standpoint, but also to consider how that group of insects has become integrated into human society, perhaps through art, literature or folklore. However, there are probably few instances when a single species of insect can be said to be so iconic that it can form the basis for such an in-depth investigation. Philip Howse’s Bee Tiger does just that by focussing upon the Death’s Head Hawk-moth Acherontia atropos (although he does also reference the other two closely related species found in Asia).
To British entomologists the Death’s Head Hawk-moth holds a special place given its size (often given the accolade of our largest moth), its striking yellow banding, its ability to squeak, its propensity to raid bee hives for honey and its rarity as a migrant (although, as its larva eats potato it tantalisingly could potentially turn up on your allotment at any time). What makes it doubly special is the marking on its thorax which gives it that haunting name, the apparent image of a human skull and crossbones, and it is this which has tipped it over into an insect with a place in human culture.
In this comprehensive discourse on the moth, Howse sets about examining how this species has come to be associated with the macabre, but also looks at the life history of this fascinating insect. The Death’s Head larva has specialised on feeding on members of the Solanaceae, tolerating highly toxic alkaloids which it can then use for its own defence and that toxicity advertised through yellow colouration in both larva and adult. He reveals that the short stout proboscis of the adult moth is just the right length to reach the bottom of a comb cell in a bee-hive, enabling it to gorge on honey. Did you know that the adult moth is coated in a fatty acid mixture enabling it to absorb the chemical signature of the bees from the hive it attacks and hence avoiding detection? Howse discusses how the evolutionary pressures from bird and bat predators have combined to influence the appearance and behaviour of the species we see today. Have you ever spotted a resemblance to a bird when the wings of the moth are closed?
Perhaps the biggest revelation though, is about that skull marking.We are so used to looking at insect specimens, photographed or illustrated as though pinned for a collection that we may forget to look more closely at the living insect. From a bird’s-eye view, looking head-on to a moth as it might be encountered at rest, that ‘skull’ image combines with the half exposed yellow hind wings and abdomen to transform the moth into a giant hornet, not something any predator wishes to mess with.
If you thought you knew this moth before, I am sure you will find something surprising to you in this book. For example, one of the iconic references to the Death‘s Head is that of its appearance in the book and subsequent film Silence of the Lambs. The action in that book takes place in North America (where none of the three species are established) and where the species actually referred to in the book is Acherontia styx. To complicate matters further, the iconic poster image for the film version is of A. atropos, but with the skull markings replaced by a miniature version of Salvador Dali’s image of a skull made up, when you look closely, from seven nudes – his work entitled In Voluptate Mors.
Quirky facts like this add to the appeal of this wide-ranging book. In summary, this is a splendid if fairly light read, well worth the modest cost. If I have one criticism it is that sometimes the digressions to provide appropriate context to a point are a little too long and are aimed at the reader with very little prior biological knowledge.The latter, however, is a minor personal gripe which does not deter me in the least from advising you to read this book for your pleasure, enjoyment and interest.
Having read this book, I could not help adding a short note of my own to Ray’s review. This is Philip Howse at his best, an authoritative overview of the cultural references to this iconic moth. It is a journey through our myths and legends, music and literature, a cultural cocktail that is generously laced with some intriguing biology. Bee Tiger presents a cultural autecology that teases apart our anthropocentric perspective of this moth and juxtaposes it with detailed accounts of its entomology.