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elephant hawk moth lifespan
The UK has several native species of hawk-moth, but the elephant hawk-moth (Deilephila elpenor) is one of our most common and widespread, found in gardens, woodland edges and open countryside. It’s a great beginner’s moth for the budding lepidopterist – it comes readily to light traps and is pretty recognisable!
how long do elephant hawk moths live
The elephant hawk-moth is a medium-sized hawk-moth, on the wing from May to early August and active at dusk. It is commonly found in parks and gardens, as well as woodland edges, rough grassland and sand dunes.
are elephant hawk moths dangerous
Elephant hawk-moth: caterpillar, lifecycle and is it poisonous?
If you’ve been lucky enough to encounter a hawk-moth, you’ll know you’ve seen something special. They’re big. They’re juicy. They’re beautiful. As a native of Birmingham might put it, they’re proper bobowlers.
The caterpillars, or larvae, can grow to the length and thickness of a large thumb. They are usually dark brown and trunk-like, hence their name, but bright green forms are not uncommon. Look for their large eye spots and spiked tail.
When they’ve had their fill of leaves and grown to full size, their next task is to look for a safe place to pupate (turn into a moth). To do this, they need to come down from their leafy larders and search for leaf litter to hide in.
This is when they become most noticeable. They’re often encountered by gardeners in late summer while sunbathing or ambling about. They can put on quite a turn of speed, undulating across paths, lawns and bare ground. When they’ve found the right spot, they’ll bury themselves beneath dry leaves and develop a hard casing, or chrysalis, in which they’ll undergo the near-magical transformation over winter from caterpillar to moth.
The adult moths emerge at night between May and July. They can be up to 6cm across from wing tip to wing tip and are bright pink and olive green. They feed on the nectar of night-scented flowers such as honeysuckle and lay their eggs on rosebay willowherb, bedstraws and fuschias.
Like all hawk-moths, they’re strong fliers. Their ability to beat their wings quickly and hover into position when feeding has earned them the ‘hawk’ part of their name.
The closely related small elephant hawk-moth (Deilephila porcellus) is similar, but as the name suggests it is smaller than its more common relative and tends to be a brighter pink. If in doubt, look for the pink stripe down the body of the larger species which the small elephant hawk-moth doesn’t have.
Are elephant hawk-moths poisonous?
Despite their bright and colourful appearance, elephant hawk-moths (both as adults and caterpillars) are not poisonous and are harmless to both people and pets.
In fact, the large caterpillars only pretend to be fierce. When threatened by a hungry bird (or unsuspecting passer-by) they retract their heads and puff out their bulbous necks. Complete with fake eyes, this display is sometimes enough to convince their attacker that they are dangerous and snake-like (and has perhaps earned them their fearsome yet unwarranted reputation).
So why are they pink?
Rather than acting as a warning to would-be predators, the moths’ bright colours advertise their presence to amorous suitors. Their night vision is particularly good, allowing them to meet up with other hawk-moths – and locate and feed from nectar-rich flowers – all in solid darkness.
And after a busy night of feeding, moths can rest during the day among their caterpillars’ favourite food plants without fear of standing out – happily they blend in nicely with the bright pink flowers of willowherbs and fuschias.
The Elephant Hawk Moth Is the ‘Ugly Duckling’ of Moths
You can’t tell what kind of extravagant beauty a creature will become when they’re just a baby. Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of “The Ugly Duckling” proves this is officially A Thing. The elephant hawk moth (Deilephila elpenor) might be the ugly duckling of our time — of all times.
An adult elephant hawk moth is breathtakingly beautiful, shaped like a futuristic jet, its wings and body are patterned with downy gold and magenta scales. It’s enough to make you swoon. The appearance of the babies, however, is where the elephant hawk moth gets its name. An elephant hawk moth caterpillar is usually dark colored (although sometimes they’re bright green) and supposedly looks like an elephant’s trunk, but anybody who has ever taken a small dog on a walk knows that it looks like chihuahua poop.
The elephant hawk
The elephant hawk moth is common in Europe and is one of the commonest hawk moths in the British Isles, widely distributed throughout much of England, Wales, Northern Ireland and parts of Scotland, but its range spans northern Africa and most of Asia to Japan as well.
Like most moths, they are nocturnal, spending their nights foraging for flower nectar. They have incredibly keen smell and color eyesight, which helps them find flowers in the dark. They’re a member of a larger group of moths called hawk moths, or sphinx moths — you might be familiar with one group of the species, the death’s head hawk moths, which starred in the 1991 thriller “The Silence of the Lambs.”
loud flight sounds
Hawk moths are known for their fast wingbeats and speedy, acrobatic, often deafeningly loud flight sounds — a hawk moth on the wing can be mistaken for a hummingbird. Plus, they have the longest tongues of any moth, which comes in handy when slurping nectar out of flowers. Some hawk moth species have tongues 14 inches (36 centimeters) long!
Adult elephant hawk moths are showy, even among a particularly charismatic group of moths, which leads people to wonder, are they dangerous?
While it’s true that very colorful butterflies and moths often signal high toxicity, elephant hawk moths are entirely harmless — they don’t sting (as the caterpillars of some moths do) and won’t poison your dog or neighborhood birds. They probably evolved to look like a Victorian throw cushion mainly to attract mates in the dark.