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Elephant hawk moth and caterpillar

David Chapman / 08 August 2012 ( 17 July 2017 )

August is a good time to spot the caterpillar of the fuchsia and olive-coloured elephant hawkmoth, says writer and photographer David Chapman.

Elephant hawkmoth caterpillar photographed by David Chapman
Elephant hawkmoth caterpillar photographed by David Chapman

The elephant hawkmoth is one of our most colourful species of moth. As well as being colourful it is also quite large but that’s not why the ‘elephant’ hawkmoth got its name.

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Hawkmoths explained

Before I take a close look at the elephant hawkmoth let me tell you a little more about the family of hawkmoths. Essentially hawkmoths are just large moths but because of their increased size they are very much more impressive. There are nine species which are resident in Britain with a further eight occurring as migrants. They are called ‘hawk’ moths because of their fast manoeuvrable flight. Most of them fly by night but there are some, such as the hummingbird hawkmoth, which fly by day.

To manoeuvre into the correct position a hawkmoth uses raw power with its wings beating at a rate of over 70 times per second. Compare that to a butterfly whose wing beat is only usually around 9 beats per second. Hawkmoths are attracted to pale coloured flowers such as honeysuckle and night-scented stock which release strong scent at night, or more particularly at dusk when they are most active.

Hawkmoths are also attracted to lights so it isn’t uncommon to find one flying around an outside light during the summer.

I have already pointed out that hawkmoths are big moths but it isn’t until you see one of the larger ones that you appreciate just how big they are. The largest is the death’s head hawkmoth, which is as gruesome in appearance as its name suggests. This species has a forewing length of up to 60mm which means a wing span of over 120mm, that is about five inches. Fortunately the death’s head hawkmoth is quite rare in Britain occurring as a migrant only in the south west. The largest resident species in the UK is the convolvulus hawkmoth.

Elephant hawmoth adult
Elephant hawmoth.

The elephant hawkmoth

The elephant hawkmoth is relatively small when compared to other members of the hawkmoth family. Its forewing length is just 30mm giving it a wingspan just in excess of 60mm, or about two and a half inches. What it lacks in size it more than makes up for in colour since its body is a mixture of olive-green and pink.

The adult elephant hawkmoths fly by night and enjoy feeding on the flowers of honeysuckle, rhododendrons and willowherbs amongst other tubular nectar flowers.

They can be found on the wing throughout the summer but by late summer we are probably more likely to find their caterpillars, or more correctly their larvae (we tend to refer to caterpillars for butterflies and larvae for moths).

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Elephant hawkmoth larvae

It is the larva of the elephant hawkmoth which earned the species its name. This bizarre-looking larva has a snout which it can extend so that it looks something like an elephant’s trunk! When the elephant hawkmoth larva senses danger it can withdraw its trunk creating a slightly more bulbous head shape.

As well as this rather unusual trunk feature the elephant hawkmoth larva also has a small tail and huge eye spots on either side of its head. Since this larva can grow to be a couple of inches long it would take a brave predator to tackle one, it can look quite intimidating with its ‘eyes’ puffed out.

These larvae can munch their way through a fair amount of foliage. They will eat the leaves of willowherbs and bedstraws but many people find them in their gardens eating fuchsia leaves.

It is during this phase of their life cycle that they attract most attention because although the larvae feed at night they often laze around on the stems of fuchsias from late afternoon to enjoy the evening sun.

They are big enough and strange enough to attract the attention of the more observant gardener and can be found through August and September.

As we progress through September and into October the larvae become fully fattened and pupate amongst leaf litter on the ground where they stay until the following summer when they emerge as moths.

Find out more about fascinating British moths

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