Heatwave attracts flight of colourful tourists from Continent

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With wings as big as a bat's, the death's-head hawkmoth is the most extraordinary of the insect visitors

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Watch out. Break no mirrors. Walk under no ladders. The emblem of death has been seen again.

The death's-head hawkmoth, Europe's most infamous insect, which bears the likeness of a skull upon its back, has turned up in England as part of the biggest influx of continental moths for many years. Several specimens have been spotted along the south coast.

Last weekend's extraordinary hot, caused by a mass of warm air surging up from southern Europe, brought with it hundreds of moths of numerous rare species from France, Spain and even the Mediterranean.

The most extraordinary of these is Acherontia atropos, named in Latin after a river in Hades over which the souls of the dead were ferried and one of the three goddesses, or Fates, who spun the thread of human destiny.

With wings as big as a bat's, and a body the size of a shrew's, the death's-head hawkmoth has three distinctive characteristics: when disturbed it makes a noise, a mouse-like squeaking through its proboscis (no other moth does makes a sound in this way); it invades beehives with impunity and feeds on the honey; and it carries that amazing likeness of a human skull prominently upon its thorax.

For centuries, it has been viewed in Europe as a creature of ill-omen, presaging bad fortune, illness and death, and it occurs widely as such in art and literature; it even made its way into the Hollywood movie The Silence of The Lambs, where the serial killer being hunted by the FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) puts the pupa of a death's-head hawkmoth into the mouths of his victims.

It featured on the posters for the 1991 film, and, rather more grandly, it also appears in one of the best-known pre-Raphaelite paintings, Holman Hunt's The Hireling Shepherd, where the shepherd in question is showing a death's-head hawkmoth to a young countrywoman, with the presumed message that death comes to us all, so let's get on with our loving.

The insect does not breed in Britain as its caterpillar cannot survive our winter, but it is occasionally seen as a migrant. Since last week's great influx, sightings of the insect have been confirmed at the RSPB's Arne nature reserve in Dorset and in Plymouth, with several more sightings reported.

Other, less sensational, migrant moths have also been exciting wildlife lovers. Among these is the dazzlingly coloured crimson speckled moth, which looks like a bag of sweets, and the gently elegant vestal, which you might say is wearing a toga with a pink-purple stripe.

Entomologists have been particularly struck by the large numbers of flame brocades that have turned up. These are beautiful, purplish-brown moths which boast a distinctive white wing-flash and are normally found in Spain and France.

"The flame brocade was resident in Sussex for at least half a century from about the mid-19th century and has been a scarce immigrant since then," said Mark Parsons, a moth expert at the charity Butterfly Conservation.

"This is the first time the moth has been seen in these numbers in this country for about 130 years. It appears to have been making an attempt to re-colonise these shores, possibly as a result of more favourable weather conditions through climate change."

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