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.
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
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.
Sphinx moths are known for their:
- Large and heavy bodies
- Long, pointed abdomens
- Hovering near flowers while feeding on nectar
- Wingspans varying by species
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:
|Feature||White-lined Sphinx Moth||Carolina Sphinx Moth|
|Wingspan||Up to 3.5 inches||2.5 to 3 inches|
|Region||North and Central America||Eastern United States|
|Color||Brown with white lines||Brown with yellow markings|
|Primary Food Source||Nectar from various flowers||Tobacco, 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
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 Stage||Key Features||Duration|
|Eggs||Small, spherical, glossy||Days to weeks|
|Larvae||Horn at rear, bold coloration||Weeks to months|
|Pupa||Brown, well-developed proboscis||Weeks to months|
|Adult||Large wingspan, nocturnal||Weeks 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.
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.
Relationship with Pollination
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
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:
Here’s a comparison of some popular sphinx moth-pollinated flowers:
Their ability to hover and rapid wing beats enable sphinx moths to access nectar from these flowers easily, promoting pollination.
Notable Sphinx Moth Species
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.
- Brown color with white stripes
- Wingspan of 2½ to 3½ inches
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.
- Resembles hummingbirds
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Triangular-shaped wings
- Light gray to brown color
|Species||Day/Night Activity||Key Features|
|White-lined Sphinx||Both||Stout-bodied, white-striped|
|Hummingbird Moth||Day||Resembles hummingbirds, diurnal|
|Hawk Moth||Both||Long wings, thick body, fast flyers|
|Rustic Sphinx Moth||Night||Nocturnal, wandering nature|
|Tersa Sphinx Moth||Night||Nocturnal, 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
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)
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 Species||Primary Host Plants||Secondary Host Plants|
|Tomato hornworm||Tomato||Eggplant, pepper|
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.
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.
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?
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.
We believe your second moth may be a Giant Silkmoth, and we are going to request assistance from Bill Oehlke.
Bill Oehlke confirms identification
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.
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.
Letter 2 – Sphinx Moth
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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 🙂
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.
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 🙂
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
Thankyou so much for confirming that! It was quite a magnificent specimen. Thankyou for your time.
Letter 10 – Sphinx Moth
Geographic location of the bug: Northern Maine
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
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.”