The Death's Head Hawk-moth through the Looking-glass
Philip Howse, an expert on mimicry, takes us on a tour de force of the biology and rich folk lore of this intriguing insect. This hawk-moth, with its yellow and black stripes, stalks like a tiger bee-hives to get to the honey, undetected by the bees. It has the ability to deceive the bees but also its predators, birds and bats. Our perception of it as a threat and the creation of superstitions is due to sinister-looking human skull markings on its thorax.
Foreword by Simon Barnes, natural history author and journalist
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Author: Philip Howse
Publisher: Brambleby Books
Year of Publication: 28 June 2021
Format and Pages: Hardback, 160pp
Retail Price: £13.99
Our Discount Price: £11.20
Sample text from Bee Tiger
Many years ago, on a hot summer’s day in the nature reserve of La Tour du Valat in the French Camargue, while I was idly searching the leaves for caterpillars, a death’s head hawk-moth fell out of an oak tree at my feet. These wetlands in the Bouches-du-Rhône are notorious for their ravenous mosquitoes, and an area near to the reserve had been routinely sprayed with pesticide as a control measure. The moth had apparently got in the way. …
Many people see the death’s head moths not as evil omens or one of nature’s fascinating curiosities but as nothing more than agricultural pests. The caterpillars can attack farm crops, and the adult moths can cause serious loss of honey production to bee-keepers. As an illustration of this, we can take the so-called Sphinx caterpillar, Acherontia styx, the species of death’s head that occurs in the Far East and attacks Sesamum. …
Skulls were used by the headhunters of Assam as trophies, a means of enslaving the soul of the previous owner for service in the afterlife and as guardians of tribal dwellings. Skull images have figured extensively in art as symbols of death. A famous mosaic tabletop from the ruins of Pompeii (79 AD) has a skull as the centrepiece. Poised over a butterfly, beggar’s rags and a royal purple toga are on opposing arms of a balance, broadcasting the message that whatever are the fortunes or misfortunes experienced in life they are nullified in death – an unforeseen irony for the people of Pompeii, who viewed the image of a skull as an exhortation to drink and be merry while they were able, anticipating the advice of Omar Khayyám (1048–1131) in his Rubaiyat.
Animals of all kinds live in a quite different sea of sensory impressions from us. In many, smell is the dominant sense, and the behaviour of many species is dictated by the perception of odours to which we are oblivious, and scent fields of the kind that the poet Robert Bridges imagined. But the terms ‘environment’ and ‘world’ are only crude descriptions of the space around us which we can sense and which we have explored for ourselves rather than imagined. The German word Umwelt, used by the pioneer German ethologists, is more useful here: it means literally the ‘surrounding world’ and stands for the part of the environment that animals (or people) inhabit and experience. I will translate this as the ‘near-world’, and this for honeybees is one in which their ‘reality’ is constructed mainly from odours, and it is odours that are the bosons of the societal cosmos, knitting individual bees together in an interconnected group that functions like a super-organism.
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Reviews and readers' comments
A bizarre but revealing lens though which to view human life, death, our relationship to the natural world and its relationship to us. - Charles Foster (author of Being a beast)
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