Hummingbird Moth: All You Need to Know in a Quick Guide

The hummingbird moth is a fascinating creature, often mistaken for its namesake – the hummingbird. They share similarities in their hovering movements and feeding habits, making them an intriguing subject to explore. As a member of the Lepidoptera order, hummingbird moths have wings covered in scales, but some species lose many scales, giving them the name clearwing hummingbird moths [1].

These moths have a “furry” body with color variations ranging from greenish-yellow to tan and reddish-brown [2]. Feeding on nectar from flowers, hummingbird moths have long proboscises for efficient extraction during the day [3]. Unlike butterflies, moth antennae are feathery or saw-edged, making it easier to distinguish between the two [4].

Overview of Hummingbird Moth

Types of Hummingbird Moths

Hummingbird moths belong to the Sphingidae family and are found across North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. They are classified into several types, including:

  • White-lined Sphinx: A common species with a distinctive striped pattern.
  • Snowberry Clearwing: Resembles a bumblebee with yellow and black bands.
  • Hummingbird Clearwing: Has a greenish-yellow or tan body with a reddish-brown band.
  • Slender Clearwing: Similar to the Hummingbird Clearwing but with a slimmer body.

Comparison to Hummingbirds

Some similarities between hummingbird moths and hummingbirds are:

  • Both hover while feeding on nectar
  • Both have quick wing movements and the ability to fly backward
  • Both feed on similar flowers

However, there are differences, such as:

  • Hummingbird moths have antennae
  • Hummingbirds have feathers, while moths have scales on their wings
  • Hummingbirds are birds, while hummingbird moths are insects
Hummingbird Moth Hummingbird
Taxonomy Insect Bird
Wings Scales Feathers
Feeding Nectar Nectar
Antennae Yes No

Convergent Evolution

Convergent evolution is when unrelated organisms independently evolve similar traits due to similar environments or ecological niches. In the case of hummingbird moths and hummingbirds, convergent evolution explains their similar appearance and behavior:

  • Both have evolved to hover and feed on nectar from flowers
  • Their body structures allow them to access flowers that other pollinators can’t reach
  • Their fast wing movements enable them to maintain the energy needed for their feeding habits

Overall, hummingbird moths are fascinating insects that share many traits with hummingbirds due to convergent evolution. Their unique adaptations and striking appearance make them a delightful sight in gardens and natural habitats.

Physical Characteristics

Wings and Flight

  • Wings: Hummingbird moths possess clearwing wings, which are due to the loss of many scales from their wing patches.
  • Wingspan: These moths have a wingspan of 1½ to 2¼ inches.

Hummingbird moths have a unique flight pattern, hovering over flowers to feed on nectar during the day.

Body and Size

Antennae and Legs

  • Antennae: Unlike butterflies, hummingbird moths have feathery or saw-edged antennae.
  • Legs: These moths possess six black legs which help them grip flower stems while feeding.
Feature Hummingbird Moth (Hemaris thysbe)
Wings Clearwing
Wingspan 1½ to 2¼ inches
Body color Greenish-yellow or tan
Body shape Plump, tail with fan
Antennae type Feathery or saw-edged
Legs Six black legs

Lifecycle and Behavior

Caterpillars and Host Plants

Hummingbird moth caterpillars, also known as hornworms, are large and robust. They are known for their distinct spine or “horn” at the hind end source. These caterpillars feed on the leaves of various host plants, some of which include:

  • Evening primrose
  • Night blooming jasmine
  • Bred valerian

Cocoon and Pupa

After extensive feeding, the caterpillar forms a cocoon, which helps in transforming into the pupa stage. The pupa is often well-camouflaged, making it difficult for predators to detect.

Mating and Eggs

Mating occurs shortly after the moths emerge from the pupa stage. After mating, the female lays eggs on the host plants, ensuring that the caterpillars have a readily available food source upon hatching.

Feeding Habits and Diet

Adult hummingbird moths have a long proboscis which allows them to hover over flowers and drink nectar as their primary food source source. Examples of flowers they visit include:

  • Monarda flowers

Daytime and Nocturnal Activity

Hummingbird moths are unique because they can be active during the day and at night. Most moths are nocturnal, but hummingbird moths have adapted to visit flowers during daytime as well.

Pollination and Hovering

Hummingbird moths serve as efficient pollinators, hovering over flowers while feeding, much like hummingbirds. This hovering behavior allows them to transfer pollen from one flower to another, playing a crucial role in plant reproduction.

Distribution and Habitats

North America

Hummingbird moths are found across North America, especially in meadows and gardens. In the US, they are commonly seen feeding on nectar from various flowers.

Examples of habitats:

  • Meadows
  • Gardens

Europe

In Europe, these fascinating moths can be spotted visiting flowers and hovering around plants in locations such as:

  • Forest clearings
  • Gardens

Asia

Hummingbird moths are also present in Asia, where they inhabit:

  • Woodlands
  • Flower-rich areas

Africa

Although not as widespread in Africa, some hummingbird moth species can be found in specific habitats such as:

  • Coastal areas
  • High altitude meadows
Continent Habitat Examples
North America Meadows, Gardens
Europe Forest clearings, Gardens
Asia Woodlands, Flower-rich areas
Africa Coastal areas, High altitude meadows

Flowers and Pollination

Attracting Hummingbird Moths

Hummingbird moths are attracted to bright and fragrant flowers, so adding these types of plants to your garden can help entice them to visit. For example, some popular flowers that may attract hummingbird moths include:

  • Honeysuckle
  • Phlox
  • Verbena
  • Butterfly bush
  • Bee balm (Monarda)
  • Salvia

These plants offer nectar and appealing scents that draw in pollinators like the hummingbird moth.

Nectar and Flower Preferences

Although hummingbird moths will feed on the nectar from various flowers, they do have some specific preferences. Their larvae need more specific food plants, such as several species of honeysuckle, dogbane, or some members of the rose family like hawthorn, cherries, and plums.

Here’s a quick comparison of some of the mentioned flowers and their characteristics:

Flower Color Scent Nectar Rich Larval Food
Honeysuckle Yellow/Red Yes Yes Yes
Phlox Pink/White Yes Yes No
Verbena Purple Yes Yes No
Butterfly Bush Purple Yes Yes No
Bee Balm Red Yes Yes No
Salvia Blue Yes Yes No

In addition to their preferred flowers, hummingbird moths will also visit other flowers with accessible nectar. Remember to provide a range of flower types to accommodate for their needs and attract these fascinating pollinators to your garden.

Common Predators and Survival Strategies

Predators

Hummingbird moths, also known as sphinx moths and hawk moths, encounter various predators in their environment. Some common predators include:

  • Birds
  • Bats
  • Spiders
  • Praying mantises

Camouflage

To evade these predators, hummingbird moths employ different survival strategies. Camouflage is one such strategy, where their unique coloring allows them to blend into their surroundings. For instance, their rich reddish-brown color helps them resemble tree bark or leaves when at rest1.

Mimicry

Mimicry is another way hummingbird moths protect themselves from predators. By resembling hummingbirds, they exhibit an example of convergent evolution, where unrelated species develop similar features due to similar ecological pressures. This similarity can confuse potential predators, increasing their chances of survival. Some features that make hummingbird moths resemble hummingbirds include:

  • Fuzzy appearance
  • Wing shape
  • Rapid wing movement
  • Hovering behavior

These survival strategies, such as camouflage and mimicry, help hummingbird moths outsmart their predators and continue with their essential role as pollinators in their ecosystems.

Rare Species and Conservation

Rare Hummingbird Moths

One rare species of hummingbird moths is the hummingbird hawk-moth. Another is the snowberry clearwing moth. These moths differ in their appearance and preferred food sources.

Feature Hummingbird Hawk-Moth Snowberry Clearwing Moth
Body color “Furry” greenish-yellow or tan Green or yellow with reddish-brown band
Wingspan 1½ to 2¼ inches Up to 2 inches
Larval food Rose family members Honeysuckle and dogbane
  • Characteristics of Hummingbird Hawk-Moth:

    • Male has flared tail
    • Daytime feeding
  • Characteristics of Snowberry Clearwing Moth:

    • Clear wings with dark borders
    • Caterpillars have yellow stripe

Importance for Ecosystem

Both the hummingbird hawk-moth and the snowberry clearwing moth play a crucial role in their ecosystem. As they feed on nectar, they pollinate flowers, helping various plant species reproduce.

Moreover, the larvae of these moths are important in maintaining the plant species diversity as they feed on particular host plants. For instance, hummingbird hawk-moth larvae feed on rose family members like hawthorn, cherries, and plums, while snowberry clearwing moth larvae consume honeysuckle and dogbane plants.

Overall, conserving and protecting these rare hummingbird moths ensures a healthier ecosystem.

In Conclusion

The Hummingbird Moth is a fascinating creature with unique features. They are characterized by their fast wing beats and hovering abilities, which make them resemble hummingbirds. Some of the notable characteristics of this moth include:

  • Quick and agile movements
  • Attraction to nectar-rich flowers
  • Nocturnal and diurnal activity patterns
  • Fast wing beats at 70-200 times per second

The Hummingbird Moth brings benefits to the ecosystem, particularly as a pollinator. By visiting various flowers while feeding on nectar, these moths contribute to the reproduction of several plant species.

Remember, they are harmless creatures that do not sting or bite, despite their appearance.

Comparing Hummingbird Moths and Hummingbirds:

Feature Hummingbird Moth Hummingbird
Classification Insect Bird
Size 1.5 to 3 inches 3 to 5 inches
Wingspan 1.6 to 2.5 inches 3.3 to 4.3 inches
Wing Beats 70 to 200 times/sec 40 to 80 times/sec
Diet Nectar (layvra feed on leaves) Nectar & small insects

By appreciating their distinctive qualities and features, we can gain a deeper understanding of the role these remarkable creatures play in nature. So, the next time you spot a Hummingbird Moth in your garden, marvel at its uniqueness and its vital role in the ecosystem.

Author

As an enthusiast of nature and its wonders, I have always been fascinated by the intriguing creatures that inhabit our world. One such captivating insect is the Hummingbird Moth. Through my observations and research, I aim to share my knowledge and insights about this fascinating creature.

The Hummingbird Moth is often mistaken for a hummingbird due to its appearance and hovering behavior. These moths are plump and often display a rich reddish-brown color, with some species having clear patches on their wings, hence being called clearwing hummingbird moths. They have distinct features that set them apart from other moths:

  • Daytime activity: Unlike most moths, Hummingbird Moths are primarily active during the day, visiting flowers and hovering over them to feed on nectar using a long proboscis.
  • Greenish or tan bodies: The moths have a furry greenish-yellow or tan body, often with a wide reddish-brown band across their abdomen.
  • Wingspan: Their wingspan typically ranges between 1½ to 2¼ inches.

Some interesting comparisons between Hummingbird Moths and actual hummingbirds are:

Aspect Hummingbird Moth Hummingbird
Classification Insect (Lepidoptera) Bird (Aves)
Diet Nectar from flowers, using a proboscis Nectar and insects/small arthropods
Flight style Capable of hovering and swift flight Capable of hovering and swift flight
Feeding time Daytime Daytime

In conclusion, the Hummingbird Moth presents an interesting case in nature, where an insect closely mimics a bird in appearance and behavior. By understanding their unique features and characteristics, we can appreciate their role in our ecosystems and gardens.

Footnotes

  1. US Forest Service – Hummingbird Moth

Reader Emails

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

Letter 1 –

 

Big Black Crazy Shaped Moth??
November 10, 2009
This “moth”, has been residing in our home for several days. We couldn’t get a very good picture, but it almost has a spade shaped tail and body part. Have been looking up moth types but cannot find anything similar. Please let us know if you have any ideas, thanks! 🙂
(We put him back outside, by the way. No carnage here!)
Whitney & Brian
Central Florida

November 12, 2009
identification request
sent in three pictures of a bug a few days back, just wondering how long a request usually takes to be identified. Thanks again,
awaiting identification so we don’t kill them for no reason, as their pretty intimidating looking, and the cat is always trying to capture any renegade bugs in the house.
Brian

Mournful Sphinx
Mournful Sphinx

Hi Brian,
Thanks for your patience.  Though we are unable to respond to every question, when someone bothers to follow up on an original query, we try our best to answer the request.  This is a blurry image of a Mournful Sphinx, Enyo lugubris.  Bill Oehlke’s excellent website has numerous high quality images of the Mournful Sphinx.

Letter 2 –

 

Subject: Fantastic hawkmoth(?)
Location: Murfreesboro, TN
May 18, 2013 7:56 pm
Hello bugfolk,
My coworker and I found this gorgeous mothy hiding out from the rain in a greenhouse just a few days past. We’re located in the middle Tennessee area. I was hoping to find out more about it–it looks like it’s in the Sphingidae family.
Thanks bunches!
Signature: Critter Crazy

Achemon Sphinx
Achemon Sphinx

Dear Critter Crazy,
This lovely moth is an Achemon Sphinx and we hope you had an opportunity to see its pretty pink underwings which are hidden while the moth is at rest.  You can read more about the Achemon Sphinx on the Sphingidae of the Americas website.

Letter 3 – Sphinx Moth from Australia

 

Subject: Moth ??
Location: Wollongong, NSW, Australia
February 20, 2014 3:58 am
I’ve lived here for 30 years and have seen this insect for the first time. It is summer here.
Signature: Cheryle

Sphinx Moth:  Theretra queenslandi
Sphinx Moth: Theretra queenslandi

Dear Cheryle,
This is a Sphinx Moth or Hawkmoth in the family Sphingidae, and it is in the genus
Theretra.  There are several species that look quite similar, but we believe this is Theretra queenslandi, which is found in New South Wales according to Butterfly House

Letter 4 – Tersa Sphinx

 

Subject: Orlando florida
Location: Orlando florida
May 8, 2016 12:24 pm
Was planting tulips when we saw this guy on the screen house. We weren’t sure it he was dead so we tapped the screen and he flew a little lower. Speculating a type of moth.
Signature: Cassandra

Tersa Sphinx
Tersa Sphinx

Dear Cassandra,
This aerodynamic wonder is a Tersa Sphinx.

Letter 5 – Xylophanes pluto: Imago and Caterpillar

 

Mystery Sphinx Moth Identified!!
Scrolling through your caterpillar pages, I recognized Xylophanes pluto http://www.silkmoths.bizland.com/xpluto.htm as the larvae of the moth in the photo I sent you a few days ago. I’m raising another one now. Yesterday it molted and changed from bright green to deep brown in a matter of hours. Thanks for your fascinating web site!
Sascha

We are happy you identified a caterpillar we did not have a chance to write back to you about.

Actually the insect I was trying to identify was the Xylophanes Pluto moth, not the caterpillar. I’m sending the photo again, since I don’t believe you have one in your database.
Keep up the wonderful work!
Sascha

Hi again Sacha,
Thanks so much for sending us the photo of the adult Xylophanes pluto, but we are a bit confused as you mention a larva and we missed you original email. Do you have a caterpillar photo to add to this posting? Can you provide a location to add to the posting? Thanks. We are copying Bill Oehlke on this email as he is keeping comprehensive data on the species distribution of Sphinx Moths in North America.

Update: (07/20/2008)
Hi Daniel, Here is the text of my original letter, sent on 7/16/08: Maybe you can help me identify this sphinx moth which hatched from a caterpillar I found on my pentas here in Fort Lauderdale, FL. It is similar to the Virginia Creeper sphinx , but different enough that I think it’s something else. I checked through the “moths” sections and didn’t see an identical one. Any idea? Thanks, Sascha In the first letter, I neglected to mention that I’d hatched the moth – or rather, sheltered the larva so I could watch it pupate and hatch. A few days after sending that letter, I recognized the Xylophanes Pluto caterpillar on your website. I didn’t get a chance to photograph the first caterpillar before it changed, but here are some photos of the one I’m currently watching. Although this one is the brown morph, the adult moth featured in the photo was from the green morph. Bill Oehlke might like to know that there are also Tersa Sphinx caterpillars on the same penta bush. I am happy to provide information and photographs for his efforts and yours.
Sascha Rybinski
Fort Lauderdale, FL

Hi again Sascha,
Thanks for the additional information, the wonderful new photos of the caterpillar, and for assisting Bill Oehlke.

Authors

    by
  • Bugman

    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.

Leave a Comment