Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

26 June 2023

Recording of the week: Death's-head hawk-moth (Acherontia Atropos)

Elizabeth Anne Kemp watercolour

Lifecycle of the Death’s-head hawk-moth in Elizabeth Anne Kemp, Drawings and watercolours of English insects. 1803–25. Add Ms 17696-17698.

On Monday 22 May, I was listening to BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week. It was on ‘birds and moths’ and featured the British Library’s very own Wildlife and Environmental Sound curator, Cheryl Tipp, making an inspiring representation of the Library’s Animals: Art, Science and Sound exhibition. She talked about the importance of sound as documentation of the natural world, making it possible, for example, for now extinct species to live on.

Alongside Cheryl on the programme, was Tim Blackburn, an ecologist specialising on the world of moths. He’s author of the forthcoming (June 2023) The Jewel Box: How moths illuminate nature’s hidden rules (Orion Publishing Co.). His ‘jewel box’ is a moth trap he puts out on his roof terrace in London. He can find more than 20 different moth species in the box with the right conditions. (He lets them go once he has documented them.)

Listening to these two contributors led me to think about what the jewel box might sound like. Apart from perhaps audible flapping of wings of the larger moths, what noises to moths make? I went exploring on the Library’s new Sounds website and found this, recorded in 1955 by English folk music collector, Russell Wortley:

Recording of a death's-head hawk-moth

The death’s-head hawk-moth is the largest moth to be found in the UK, with a wing-span of c.13cm. It gets its name from the rather sinister pattern on its thorax resembling a human skull. It can also be singled out by its ability to squeak when it becomes alarmed. 

Visitors can see Elizabeth Anne Kemp’s watercolour in the exhibition.

Today’s post was written by Janet Topp Fargion, Head of Sound & Vision.