Moths in the Royal Bedchamber

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

Roz Wade, Education Officer at the Museum of Zoology, writes:

The museum is full of fascinating specimens of animals of all kinds. There are the elegant, with neat adaptations or body forms and structures beautiful in their line and shape. There are animals that are quirky, with rather bizarre adaptations and sometimes peculiar appearance. There are animals with interesting evolutionary histories, fossils hundreds of millions of years old, huge animals, small animals…. Then there are the specimens that have a fascinating history behind them and how they were collected. This Death’s Head Hawkmoth (Acherontia atropos) is just such an example.

Take a look at the label in this photograph – if you can decipher the handwriting it reads:

“Taken in the bedroom of King George III by Dr R. D. Willis.”

The archives in the museum contain a label describing its collection by Dr Robert Willis, who attended George III during his second major bout of “madness” in 1801. Which palace the specimens were collected from is unknown. There is still debate about the cause of George III’s erratic behaviour. Dr Robert Willis was the maternal grandfather of John Willis Clark, the first Superindendent of the Museum, giving a likely route for the specimens to arrive at the Museum.

But what of the animals themselves? It is the largest species of moth you can find in the UK, but is only a summer visitor here. The name Death’s Head Hawkmoth, is inspired by the eerie skull-shaped markings on its back. The moth feeds on honey from bee nests and sap from trees. It can make a loud,shrill noise, thought to help subdue the worker bees of the nest it is robbing. This noise, along with its spooky appearance, have given this species a bad reputation. People in the past feared it as an evil omen bringing war, pestilence and death, a fear that is reflected in its scientific name, Acherontia atropos. In Greek mythology Archeron was known as the river of pain or sorrows, and Atropos was the eldest of the three fates who cut the thread of life.

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