Are Sphinx Moths Dangerous? Unveiling the Truth Behind These Intriguing Insects

Sphinx moths, also known as hawk moths, are a family of large, heavy-bodied moths found in various habitats around the world.

These captivating creatures are often seen hovering near flowers, feeding on nectar through their long proboscis, resembling a hummingbird in motion.

Though sphinx moths might appear intimidating due to their size and swift movements, they are not considered dangerous to humans.

Are Sphinx Moths Dangerous
Mating Sphinx Moths: Adhemarius gannascus

Instead, some species are considered beneficial pollinators for plants, contributing to the health of the ecosystem.

However, their larvae, known as hornworms, can sometimes be viewed as pests, causing damage to certain crops and garden plants.

Despite this, sphinx moths don’t pose a direct threat to people or pets, and their fascinating behavior can be an interesting sight for nature enthusiasts.

Overview of Sphinx Moths

Classification

Sphinx moths, also known as hawk moths, belong to the family Sphingidae.

There are about 11,000 moth species in the United States, and the number of moth species worldwide is estimated to be over 160,000.

Range and Habitat

These moths can be found in various habitats, ranging from North America to Central America. They are particularly common in the United States.

Physical Characteristics

Sphinx moths are known for their:

  • Large and heavy bodies
  • Long, pointed abdomens
  • Hovering near flowers while feeding on nectar
  • Wingspans varying by species

Laurel Sphinx Moth

Here are some key features of Sphinx moths:

  • Wings: Their forewings are generally long and pointed, with some species having angled or irregular margins
  • Antennae: The antennae gradually widen and then narrow again towards the tip, with comb-like extensions
  • Proboscis: They have a very long proboscis (mouth tube or “tongue”) for feeding on nectar

Comparing two common Sphinx moth species:

FeatureWhite-lined Sphinx MothCarolina Sphinx Moth
WingspanUp to 3.5 inches2.5 to 3 inches
RegionNorth and Central AmericaEastern United States
ColorBrown with white linesBrown with yellow markings
Primary Food SourceNectar from various flowersTobacco, tomato, and other plant species

Sphinx moths are not considered dangerous to humans, but they can play a role in pollination and contribute to the ecosystem in various ways.

Life Cycle of Sphinx Moths

Eggs and Instars

Sphinx moth eggs are typically laid on the leaves of host plants. As they develop, the moths go through a series of growth stages called instars:

  • The first instar is tiny and has limited mobility
  • During later instars, the caterpillars grow quickly and become more active.

Here are some key features of this stage:

  • Sphinx moth eggs are small, spherical, and glossy
  • The number of instars varies among species, but most caterpillars go through five instars

Larvae and Caterpillars

Caterpillars are the larval stage of the sphinx moth, and they have a unique appearance:

  • Distinctive horn or spine at the rear end
  • Bold color patterns that may serve as a warning to predators

Feeding habits and preferred host plants also differ among species, and some examples include:

  • The tobacco hornworm feeds on tobacco, tomato, and pepper leaves
  • The white-lined sphinx moth caterpillar feeds on various plants, including the evening primrose

Sphinx Moth: Which Eumorpha species???

Pupation and Adult Moth

After the larval stage, caterpillars pupate in the soil. Key characteristics:

  • Pupa is typically brown or dark-colored, with a well-developed proboscis
  • The duration of the pupal stage varies among species and environmental conditions

Adult sphinx moths emerge from the pupa and begin their life as nocturnal flying insects:

  • They have large wingspans, often resembling those of hummingbirds or bats
  • Sphinx moths are important pollinators, using their long proboscis to feed on nectar

Here is a comparison table for the sphinx moth life cycle stages:

Life Cycle StageKey FeaturesDuration
EggsSmall, spherical, glossyDays to weeks
LarvaeHorn at rear, bold colorationWeeks to months
PupaBrown, well-developed proboscisWeeks to months
AdultLarge wingspan, nocturnalWeeks to months

Are Sphinx Moths Dangerous?

To Plants and Gardens

Sphinx moths are known to have larvae called hornworms, which feed on various plants.

Some species of hornworms can cause damage to plants, especially the ones that are considered as pests. For instance:

  • Tomato hornworm: This caterpillar feeds on tomato plants, damaging their leaves and fruits.
  • Apple and grape hornworm: These caterpillars feed on apple and grape leaves, causing defoliation.

However, not all sphinx moth species are harmful to plants, and some even help in pollination.

To Humans

In general, sphinx moths are not harmful to humans. They are neither venomous nor aggressive and do not pose any major threat to people.

It’s worth noting that their caterpillars, hornworms, can damage plants in gardens, but they don’t typically cause any harm to humans.

Newly Eclosed Sphinx Moth

Relationship with Pollination

Pollinator Species

Sphinx moths, also known as hawk moths, are a group of moth pollinators that play a vital role in pollination. Some well-known species within this group include:

  • Hummingbird moths
  • Hummingbird clearwing moth
  • White-lined sphinx moth

These pollinators have some unique features, such as:

  • Long proboscis for reaching nectar in deep flowers
  • Impressive wingspans, allow them to hover over flowers
  • Rapid wing beats, produce a hummingbird-like sound

Floral Engagement

Sphinx moths are attracted to specific flower characteristics, including:

  • Pale or white flowers
  • Strong fragrance
  • Accessible nectar

Examples of flowers that sphinx moths frequently visit include:

  • Honeysuckle
  • Verbena
  • Petunias
  • Thistles
  • Four-o-clocks

Here’s a comparison of some popular sphinx moth-pollinated flowers:

FlowerColorFragranceNectar Accessibility
HoneysucklePaleStrongDeep
VerbenaWhiteMildModerate
PetuniasPaleModerateDeep
ThistlesWhiteMildModerate
Four-o-clocksPaleStrongDeep

Their ability to hover and rapid wing beats enable sphinx moths to access nectar from these flowers easily, promoting pollination.

Notable Sphinx Moth Species

White-Lined Sphinx

The White-lined Sphinx Moth (Hyles lineata) is a large moth with a furry brown body and six white stripes. It has long, narrow, triangular forewings and shorter hindwings, giving it a wingspan of 2½ to 3½ inches.

Whitelined Sphinx

Key Features:

  • Stout-bodied
  • Brown color with white stripes
  • Wingspan of 2½ to 3½ inches

Hummingbird Moth

The Hummingbird Moth is often mistaken for a hummingbird due to its hovering behavior and size. Like hummingbirds, these moths are diurnal, meaning they are more active during the day.

Key Characteristics:

  • Resembles hummingbirds
  • Diurnal

Hawk Moth

Hawk Moths are part of the Sphingidae family and are known for their long narrow wings and thick bodies. They are fast flyers and highly aerobatic, with many species capable of hovering in place.

Notable Traits:

  • Long narrow wings
  • Thick bodies
  • Fast flyers

Rustic Sphinx Moth

The Rustic Sphinx Moth is a nocturnal moth known for its wandering nature. It features grayish-brown coloring with a distinct pattern on its wings.

Rustic Sphinx

Key Features:

  • Nocturnal
  • Wandering nature
  • Grayish-brown color

Tersa Sphinx Moth

The Tersa Sphinx Moth is another nocturnal moth, recognized by its triangular-shaped wings and light gray to brown coloring.

Characteristics:

  • Nocturnal
  • Triangular-shaped wings
  • Light gray to brown color
SpeciesDay/Night ActivityKey Features
White-lined SphinxBothStout-bodied, white-striped
Hummingbird MothDayResembles hummingbirds, diurnal
Hawk MothBothLong wings, thick body, fast flyers
Rustic Sphinx MothNightNocturnal, wandering nature
Tersa Sphinx MothNightNocturnal, triangular-shaped wings

Despite their intimidating appearance, sphinx moths are not considered dangerous. They do not bite or sting, and their larvae generally cause minor damage to plant foliage.

Host Plants and Sphinx Moth Caterpillars

Feeding Preferences

Sphinx moth caterpillars, also known as hornworms, have specific feeding preferences based on their host plants. They usually feed on plants such as:

  • Solanaceous plants (tomato and tobacco)
  • Poplar
  • Catalpa

For example, the caterpillars of tomato hornworms feed on tomato plants, while the tobacco hornworm chooses tobacco plants.

Associated Pest Species

Some sphinx moth caterpillars can become pests in home gardens and agricultural fields due to their feeding habits. Two common pest species are:

  • Tomato hornworm (Manduca quinquemaculata): Feeds on tomato, eggplant, and pepper plants
  • Tobacco hornworm (Manduca sexta): Prefers tobacco plants but also attacks tomato plants
Pest SpeciesPrimary Host PlantsSecondary Host Plants
Tomato hornwormTomatoEggplant, pepper
Tobacco hornwormTobaccoTomato

Despite their potential for damage, sphinx moth caterpillars are not usually considered dangerous to humans. Moreover, they contribute to pollination as moths, making them an essential part of the ecosystem.

Conclusion

Sphinx moths are beautiful and fascinating insects that have a long history of interaction with humans.

They are not dangerous to humans or animals, as they do not bite, sting, or carry diseases.

However, some sphinx moths, especially their caterpillars, can be pests to certain plants, such as tomatoes, grapes, and tobacco.

Sphinx moths can be controlled by using natural enemies, cultural practices, or insecticides.

They are not a threat to human health or safety, but they can be a problem for some crops or gardens.

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about Sphinx Moths. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Male and Female Giant Silkmoth from the Amazon

More Brazilian Moths.
Location: Amazon, Brazil
March 1, 2012 4:19 pm
I’ve tried hard and I think this is type of Geometrid moth, and I think both examples are the same species, but I have no idea what. The moth is about 3-4 inches across and long.

These are two examples, the first pic was taken in Manaus, Brazil on 24 Jan 2012. The second two pics where taken in Santarem, Brazil last year. I have to admit, of all the moth pictures I have, this is a particular favourite. I love how fat and solid it looks. Can you help again?
Signature: Tracey

Giant Silkmoth:  Male Syssphinx molina

Hi Tracey,
We have been a bit busy, and we have not had a chance to do this research which is very time consuming.  We are posting your three images in the hope that one of our readers can assist with this matter. 

We suspect the answer to one of your moth identification requests is on the Brazil section of the Sphingidae of the Americas.  The staff took the day off yesterday, and we are now way behind.  We are going to try to post a few simpler identification requests to catch up a bit before returning to your request. 

Giant Silkmoth:  Female Syssphinx molina

We believe your second moth may be a Giant Silkmoth, and we are going to request assistance from Bill Oehlke.

Giant Silkmoth:  Syssphinx molina

Bill Oehlke confirms identification
Daniel,
Syssphinx Molina of Ceratocampinae subfamily of Saturniidae family.
Was the location in Brazil provided?

A very big thank you.  I appreciate my pictures are among many you receive, and I don’t expect an immediate answer, if at all.  I just hope you can or will help.
Once again you have come up trumps.

As I said, I personally loved this moth because of it’s shape.  I’ve been looking at the photograph of the first one wondering about it for over a year.   I never knew of the added bonus of such beautiful colours under those forewings.

Whilst looking through hundreds of photographs trying to identify this, I did manage to identify my dysdaemonia boreas or dead leaf moth,  I just never thought to look at all those moths with the giant eyes on their hind wings.
Once again, thank you so very much.
Tracey

Hi Daniel
These pictures were taken on board ships on the Amazon River.  As I said, the first picture, the male, was taken in Manaus, Brazil on 24 Jan this year, the moth would have landed on board overnight.

The two pictures of the female where taken on 12 Feb 2011, in Santarem, Brazil. Again the moth would have landed on board our ship overnight.
Tracey

Letter 2 – Sphinx Moth

Moth Maybe?
Location: Temple Texas ( central texas)
April 11, 2012 7:59 pm
Not sure what kind of bug or moth this is. I have never seen a moth this big and with fur around the head. I took the pic last night April 11 2012 in Texas at a gas station.
Signature: Michelle

Sphinx Moth

Hi Michelle,
This is a Sphinx Moth in the genus
Manduca.  Moths are often attracted to lights at gas stations which are often quite bright and often there are no other lights in the vicinity if the gas station is on a stretch of road far from civilization.  We find your photo quite amusing.

Thank you 🙂 Haha I was quite scared of it since I have never seen a moth so big. I did not get my usual 93 and chose 87 a little farther away so I would not have to press the button he was sitting on.  Michelle

Letter 3 – Sphinx Moth from Guam

Subject: Moth with Glowing Eyes from Guam
Location: Guam, Northern Marianas Islands, Micronesia
November 27, 2012 12:34 pm
Greetings!
I’m living on Guam and these big fluffy moths are everywhere around where I work at night, their soulful eyes shining back at me when I turn the flashlight onto them (their eyes really do shine from as far off in the dark as a cat’s).

These photos were taken on Sept 11th of this year, but they seem to be present year-round. I was trying to capture their eye-shine when I took the pictures (do a lot of insects have significant eye-shine? I’ve never noticed).
Thank you so much for your time and the resource you provide!
Signature: Globe Trotting Canid

Sphinx Moth

Hi Globe Trotting Canid,
Certain nocturnal moths, especially Sphinx Moths and Noctuids have eyes that reflect back strong light sources like the electronic flash of your camera. This is a Sphinx Moth in the family Sphingidae, and we haven’t the time to identify the genus or species at this time.  Should you determine its identity, please let us know.

Sphinx

Thank you kindly!
That’s a step closer to identifying it than I was before – thank you
again!  I’ll let you know if I stumble across the answer.

Letter 4 – Sphinx Moth from Brazil

Subject: Acherontia lachesis?
Location: Campinas – SP Brazil
February 12, 2013 8:31 pm
This moth enters my house and starts to circle the light bulb, and get stuck on my clothes, his abdomen have a light orange coloration
Signature: Gabriel ajeje

Sphinx Moth

Hi Gabriel,
This is a Sphinx Moth in the same family as
Acherontia lachesis, but it is a different species.  Acherontia lachesis is a member of an Old World genus commonly called the Death’s Head Sphinx and it is not native to Brazil.  It is a much larger moth than your specimen.

Letter 5 – Sphinx from Puerto Rico is Xylophanes chiron

Subject: Beautiful Green Moth
Location: Puerto Rico
February 22, 2013 11:26 am
Hi! Could this be a Pluto Sphinx Moth? Picture taken February 11, 2013.
Signature: ~AM

Xylophanes pluto
Xylophanes pluto

Dear AM,
The Pluto Sphinx,
Xylophanes pluto, that is pictured on the Sphingidae of the Americas website looks somewhat similar to your moth because it is in the same genus.  Your moth is Xylophanes chiron, and it is also pictured on the Sphingidae of the Americas website.

Thank you for your time and quick reply!

Letter 6 – Whitelined Sphinx Moth

Subject: Whitelined Sphinx Moth?
Location: Ypsilanti [Michigan]
November 10, 2013 11:47 am
Hi Guys,
I found this beauty a couple weeks ago. After using Whatthatbug.com I think it’s a Whitelined Sphinx
Moth. Just wanted to share and say thanks again for making a great site to identify bugs 🙂
Signature: Rachel

Probably White Lined Sphinx
Probably White Lined Sphinx

Dear Rachel,
What an intense expression you have captured in this portrait of a Sphinx Moth.  This is most likely a Whitelined Sphinx, but a better view of the wings would make us more confident. 

The markings on the head look very similar to this photo of a Whitelined Sphinx from BugGuide.  We did not know where in the world Ypsilanti was located, and we thought it might be some exotic Eurasian location, but our research revealed this unusual name as being a city in Michigan.

Whitelined Sphinx
Whitelined Sphinx

Hi Daniel,
Thanks for the super fast response. I didn’t do a great job on my form, I am in Ypsilanti Michigan. I also got the wrong site link of there, fail big time :/

Heres another shot of the moth, It beat it’s wings super fast and the colors and markings look like it could be a Whiteline Sphinx
Thanks again for a great place to identify critters, I know you guys are overwhelmed 🙂
Rachel R

Letter 7 – Waved Sphinx Moth

Subject: Sphinx Moth ?
Location: Middle Tennessee
August 23, 2014 10:46 am
My husband spotted this at work. I was sure it was a type of Sphinx Moth until I looked on your site and saw the others did not have long antennas. Can you enlighten me on what type of moth this may be?
Signature: Sarah P.

Elm Sphinx
Waved Sphinx

Hi Sarahm
This appears to us to be an Elm Sphinx or Four Horned Sphinx,
Ceratomia amyntor. 

You can read more about the Elm Sphinx on the Sphingidae of the Americas website where it states:  “Ceratomia amyntor adults fly as a single brood in a wide variety of forested and open habitats in the northern portions of their range from June-July.

There are two broods further south, and Vernon A. Brou confirms five broods in Louisiana from March-October.”

Correction:  Waved Sphinx
We just received a comment that this is a Waved Sphinx.

Letter 8 – Sphinx Moth: Smerinthus ophthalmica

Subject: Yikes big moth or what?
Location: Lake Stevens, WA
May 2, 2016 11:53 am
Identify please is this a sphinx or moth or freak of nature ? ?
Lake Stevens wa lived in WA my entire life this is creepy cool.
Signature: Stephanie

Sphinx Moth: Smerinthus ophthalmica
Sphinx Moth: Smerinthus ophthalmica

Dear Stephanie,
This is indeed a Sphinx Moth, albeit one with no common name.  We identified it as
Smerinthus ophthalmica on Sphingidae of the Americas, and verified that ID on BugGuide.  This species was quite recently determined to be distinct from the One Eyed Sphinx, and we would not completely rule out that as the correct identification.

Wowwwww
Totally cool they are bigger over here too 2 nd summer I’ve seen them at my house they came outta nowhere I have a wetland behind so it’s very cool.

The nearby wetlands makes perfect sense because according to BugGuide:  “Larvae feed on Salicaceae including willows (Salix spp.), cottonwoods (Populus spp.), and quaking aspen (P. tremuloides)” and willow grows in wet areas.

Haaaa haaaa I have willow in my yard and there’s cotton woods in wetland that’s funny.
They are really magnificent HUGE. I did a double take when I saw him I thought was fake 🙂
But they seem harmless could they be damaging to my trees then?

I am just blown away by him. I’ve seen some weirdo bugs these last couple years and being I’m 42 and lived in same county forever and never seen them it’s a little shocking to see things that look like prehistoric critters

The caterpillars eat the leaves and we seriously doubt there would be so many caterpillars as to defoliate your trees.  In our opinion, they are doing no damage to the trees.

Cool ty
If never spray anyway I’m not a creepy crawler fan but it’s harmful to the vast wildlife I have. I just leave them be in peace. Don’t worry I won’t kill it 🙂

I only kill spiders if they enter my turf and is bigger than a me haaaa Haaa
Wetland I get some monsters I do spray outside to deter them but once in awhile

I get a sneaker I’m aware they are in my home but if I don’t have to I won’t kill it I will scoop him up and back out.
I wouldn’t kill the moth he’s pretty cool and I think it’s a rare treat I got to actually see him chilling out in the sun

Letter 9 – Sphinx Moth from Australia: Coequosa australasiae

Subject: Moth
Location: Wollongong NSW
January 29, 2017 9:17 pm
I took a few photos of this large moth today. It’s colour was mainly greys and olive drab. It was large and solid, motionless near ground level on the leaf in the photo.

I would say from the top of the head to the bottom of the abdomen it would have been about 10cm with the wingspan being maybe 12cm. Is this an Australian Hawk Moth? I have seen photos identified that look similar to mine but there were orange colours underneath the wings and on the tip of the abdomen.
Signature: Philip Reuter

Australian Hawkmoth

Dear Philip,
It took us a bit of searching to identify your Australian Hawkmoth as
Coequosa australasiae.  Part of the reason it took so long is that the image posted to Butterfly House is quite different looking than your individual, and we eventually found a visual match on Csiro

A very worn looking individual on A Roving I Will Go is the best color match to your individual.  The condition of your individual is so perfect we are guessing it has just emerged from the pupa and perhaps it has yet to take its first flight.  This species does have orange underwings that are hidden in your image. 

Dear Daniel,
Thankyou so much for confirming that! It was quite a magnificent specimen. Thankyou for your time.
Regards,
Philip Reuter

Letter 10 – Sphinx Moth

Subject:  Sphingidae?
Geographic location of the bug:  Northern Maine
Date: 07/03/2018
Time: 06:54 PM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  this dude got stuck in my window. I’ve been waiting all summer for some cool moths like this and I’d like to know what this one is specifically! Thanks in advance 🙂
Found July 2
How you want your letter signed:  Jade

Possibly Waved Sphinx

Dear Jade,
You are correct that this is a Sphinx Moth, and we believe it is a member of the genus
Ceratomia, and there are three species from the genus recognized on the Sphingidae of Maine page on Sphingidae of the Americas.  We believe this is a Waved Sphinx, Ceratomia undulosa, and we will attempt to verify that identification with Bill Oehlke. 

According to Sphingidae of the Americas:  “The upperside of the forewing is pale brownish gray with wavy black and white lines and a black-outlined white cell spot. The upperside of the hindwing is gray with diffuse darker bands.  Some individuals are very dark, almost black, and others are light yellowish brown.”

Waved Sphinx, we believe

Authors

  • Daniel Marlos

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

9 thoughts on “Are Sphinx Moths Dangerous? Unveiling the Truth Behind These Intriguing Insects”

  1. Not a sphinx, rather, a Saturniid. I’m pretty sure this is a male Syssphinx molina. I would double check with Bill Oehlke. This one is a little darker than other images I have seen of S. molina.

    Reply
  2. Thank you so much for the response and the links. I loved being able to read about the development of this Elm Moth. After visiting the link for the Sphingadae of Americas, it was clear to me that although I have never seen this particular moth before, I have seen the eggs and pupae. Thank you so much for all of the hard work and dedication!

    Reply

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