You never forget an elephant hawk-moth once you’ve seen one. They’re big, they’re bright and they’re very, very beautiful.

We have nine species of hawk-moth which live permanently in the UK, and another nine which visit as migrants. The elephant hawk-moth (Deilephila elpenor) is one of our permanent and most flamboyant residents, found in habitats ranging from grassland and gardens to hedgerows, woodland and sand dunes. Let’s find out more about it.

What does an elephant hawk-moth caterpillar look like?

Elephant hawk-moth caterpillars are a dark brown-grey colour and quite chunky. They look a little like an elephant’s trunk (hence the name) and can reach up to 8cm in length. They also have a spiked ‘tail’ and two sets of eye spots just behind their head.

Elephant hawk-moth caterpillars can sometimes be green! It isn't fully understood why the green form exists, but they aren't uncommon, so keep your eyes peeled.

What do adult elephant hawk-moths look like?

Adults are pink and olive green and have a wingspan of up to 6cm. They’re nocturnal and are most likely seen at night when they feed from tubular flowers like honeysuckle. They’re also attracted to light and are a regular find in moth traps.

The closely related small elephant hawk-moth (Deilephila porcellus) looks very similar, but it’s smaller than its relative (with a wingspan up to 5cm) and is more brightly coloured. The small elephant hawk-moth also lacks the pink stripe which runs down the body of the elephant hawk-moth.

Elephant hawk-moth lifecycle

Adult elephant hawk-moths are on the wing between May and July. They lay their eggs on rosebay willowherb, bedstraws and fuchsias – a leafy larder which their caterpillars gobble up once they hatch. You’re most likely to see the caterpillars in August and September, once they’ve had their fill and crawl off in search of a place to pupate (turn into a moth). It isn’t unusual to come across one sunbathing in the middle of a path or lawn!

The caterpillars usually bed down in leaf litter or just below the surface of the soil, develop a hard casing known as a cocoon, then spend the winter undergoing a magical transformation. They’ll emerge again as an adult moth in spring.

Are elephant hawk-moths poisonous?

Despite their bright and colourful appearance, elephant hawk-moths aren’t poisonous to humans or animals.

Elephant hawk-moth caterpillars do have a clever way to scare off predators though. They can partially retract their head and puff out their body – making their eye spots more prominent – so they resemble a snake.

Discover more about moths


UK hawk-moth identification and facts

Amy Lewis  •  21 Jun 2021

Hawk-moths are some of the largest and most recognisable moths in the UK. Learn to tell which is which with our visual guide to 10 of the most commonly encountered UK species.

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