Hummingbird or Butterfly? The Sphinx Moth is Unique

 

Hummingbird Moth   by Larry Lamsa - Hummingbird MothUploaded by PDTillman
Hummingbird Moth
by Larry Lamsa – Hummingbird MothUploaded by PDTillman

Darting through brightly colored flowers in mid-summer,  Sphinx Moths or Hummingbird Moths are often spotted and mistaken for hummingbirds. The video below captured a Snowberry Clearwing Moth, Hemaris diffinis, one type of Sphinx moth commonly seen in the mid-Atlantic region. It is a bumblebee mimic, with yellow and black segments, and measuring between 1 1/2 to 2 inches in length, but much faster. The name Snowberry, identifies the host for the larvae stage as the Snowberry, Symphoricarpos, which is a shrub that bears white berries. Additional plant hosts are honeysuckle (Lonicera), dogbane (Apocynum), and dwarf bush honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera). The host plant that occurs on my property is honeysuckle.

At first glance, the adult hummingbird moths look exactly like hummingbirds. They hover near nectar filled flowers around dusk and insert long, specialized mouthparts into blossoms in search of their sugar harvest. They move quickly, so quickly that it is hard to catch a good glimpse of them. But if you take a closer look you’ll see that they’re not a hummingbird, but a moth, a member of a group of moths known as hummingbird moths.

"White-lined sphinx" by ZooFari - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
“White-lined sphinx” by ZooFari – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

 The moths are strong and fast fliers, with a rapid wing beat. Most species in the group act like hummingbirds, highly acrobatic, able to fly backwards, and hovering in front of a flower and sipping nectar through the extended proboscis. The proboscis rolls up when not in use. Hawk or hummingbird moths have the world’s longest tongues of any other moth or butterfly (some up to 14 inches long). Charles Darwin knew of the star orchids (Angraecum spp.) from Madagascar that had nectar spurs over a foot in length. Darwin was ridiculed by other scientists of his day for predicting that these orchids would be pollinated by hawk moths. After his death, hawk moths with tongues long enough to sip the nectar produced by the star orchids were discovered on the island of Madagascar. This discovery was a triumph of the theory of evolution.

Snowberry Clearwing moth
Snowberry Clearwing moth

 

The larvae caterpillar stage is green, black, and yellow, depending on the species of the moth, and they burrow into soil to pupate, where they remain for 2–3 weeks before they emerge as adults.  I was shocked to discover that the larvae caterpillar of one type of sphinx moth is the dreaded tomato hornworm!

Tomato hornworm being parasitized by braconid wasp larvae
Tomato hornworm being parasitized by braconid wasp larvae

See my post at A Tomato Grower’s Best Friend  for more information on this pest. As adult moths, sphinx moths eat nectar from flowers including lantana, dwarf bush honeysuckle, snowberry, orange hawkweed, thistles, lilac, and Canada violet. They range from Maine to Florida east of the continental divide, and west of the divide are a slightly different species.

Sphinx moth feeding on monarda, or bee balm
Sphinx moth feeding on monarda, or bee balm

 They are “accidental” pollinators, picking up pollen on their legs while visiting flowers for nectar, and perform a valuable pollination service. See my post on pollinators, Sex in the Garden.

"Hyles lineata larva and egg" by Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University, Bugwood.org - This image is Image Number 5211020 at Insect Images, a source for entomological images operated by The Bugwood Network at the University of Georgia and the USDA Forest Service.
“Hyles lineata larva and egg” by Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University, Bugwood.org – This image is Image Number 5211020 at Insect Images, a source for entomological images operated by The Bugwood Network at the University of Georgia and the USDA Forest Service.

2 Replies to “Hummingbird or Butterfly? The Sphinx Moth is Unique”

  1. A beautiful post, Claire. We had several in our garden last summer, and I was able to get some wonderful photos of them feeding. They are such fun to watch! Best wishes, WG

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