Hummingbird Moth Life Cycle: An Intriguing Insight for Nature Enthusiasts

Hummingbird moths are fascinating insects that closely resemble the more familiar hummingbirds. These moths, belonging to the family Sphingidae, are known for their agile and swift flight, allowing them to hover over flowers while feeding on nectar. One common species is the snowberry clearwing moth (Hemaris diffinis), which can be found across North America.

The life cycle of a hummingbird moth is similar to that of any other moth or butterfly, beginning as an egg and then progressing through the larval, pupal, and adult stages. As they grow, the larvae of hummingbird moths feast on the leaves of specific plants, such as honeysuckle, dogbane, and some members of the rose family like hawthorn, cherries, and plums source.

In contrast to many other moths, some species of hummingbird moths are active during daylight hours, which makes them easier to observe in gardens and parks. These fascinating creatures play an important role in pollination as they move from flower to flower, sipping nectar with their long proboscises.

Hummingbird Moth Life Cycle

Eggs

  • Laid by female moths on host plants
  • Hatch within a week

Hummingbird moth females lay eggs on host plants like honeysuckle, dogbane, and members of the rose family. Eggs hatch within a week, giving rise to caterpillars.

Caterpillars

  • Green to brown in color
  • Develop a horn on the tail end
  • Feed on host plant leaves

Caterpillars exhibit a green to brown color and eventually develop a horn on their tail end as they grow. They feed on the leaves of their specific host plants.

Pupa

  • Form a cocoon in leaf litter or ground
  • Overwinter in harsh climates

As the caterpillars mature, they form a cocoon in leaf litter or on the ground. In harsh climates, they overwinter as pupae, and adult moths emerge during warmer seasons.

Adult Moth

Feature Snowberry Clearwing Hummingbird Clearwing
Size 1-1/2 to 2 inches wingspan 1-1/2 to 2-1/4 inches wingspan
Body Furry yellow or tan, reddish-brown band Furry greenish-yellow or tan, reddish-brown band
Behavior Hover and feed on nectar Hover and feed on nectar

Adult hummingbird moths, like the Snowberry Clearwing and Hummingbird Clearwing, have distinct features and behavior. They feed on nectar from flowers using their long proboscis, hovering like hummingbirds.

Hummingbird moths are important pollinators for various flowers, such as phlox, bee balm, and verbena. Their habitat includes meadows and gardens across North America and Europe.

Examples of hummingbird moth species:

  • Hemaris thysbe (Clearwing Hummingbird Moth)
  • Hemaris diffinis (Snowberry Clearwing)
  • Hyles lineata (White-lined Sphinx)

Pros of hummingbird moths:

  • Effective pollinators
  • Fascinating to observe

Cons of hummingbird moths:

  • Caterpillars can damage host plants

Physical Characteristics of Hummingbird Moths

Wings and Flight

  • Wingspan: Hummingbird moths typically have a wingspan of 1½ to 2¼ inches 1.
  • Flight pattern: These moths are known for their unique hovering flight pattern, similar to hummingbirds, as they feed on nectar from flowers 2.
  • Humming sound: Their rapid wing movement creates a humming sound that can be mistaken for a real hummingbird 3.

Size and Coloration

  • Size: The size of a hummingbird moth varies depending on the species, but most are relatively small and compact 4.
  • Coloration: The white-lined sphinx moth has a furry greenish-yellow or tan body with a wide reddish-brown band across the abdomen 5. The clearwing hummingbird moth has an olive to golden olive body with a burgundy or blackish abdomen 6.

Comparison Table:

Feature White-lined Sphinx Clearwing Hummingbird Moth
Wingspan 1½ to 2¼ inches 1½ to 2¼ inches
Flight pattern Hovering, like hummingbirds Hovering, like hummingbirds
Sound Humming Humming
Body color Greenish-yellow or tan Olive to golden olive
Abdomen color Reddish-brown Dark Burgundy or blackish

Behavior and Habitat

Feeding Patterns

Hummingbird moths primarily feed on nectar from various flowers. They exhibit a unique foraging style, as they often hover while feeding. The moths’ flight pattern resembles that of hummingbirds, hence the name. Some common North American flowers they feed on include:

  • Honeysuckle
  • Dogbane
  • Hawthorn
  • Cherries
  • Plums

Living Environment

Hummingbird moths are commonly found in North America, especially in the United States. Their habitats usually consist of meadows and fields in northern latitudes. These moths favor areas with abundant flowering plants, as they rely on the nectar for sustenance. Their distribution mainly depends on the availability of suitable habitat and flowers for feeding.

Habitats comparison:

Habitat Distribution Main Food Source
Meadows Northern latitudes in North America Flower nectar
Fields Northern latitudes in North America Flower nectar

In conclusion, the behavior and habitat of hummingbird moths revolve around their need to feed on nectar from various flowers. Their distinct feeding patterns involve hovering over flowers, just like hummingbirds, making them unique among moths. Their preferred living environment includes meadows and fields in the northern latitudes of North America. Their distribution highly depends on the availability of flowers for feeding.

Types of Hummingbird Moths

Hummingbird Clearwing

  • Greenish-yellow or tan body, “furry” appearance
  • Reddish-brown band across the abdomen
  • Wingspan of 1.5 to 2.25 inches1

The Hummingbird Clearwing is known for its unique appearance and is often mistaken for a small hummingbird. This moth is active during the day and hovers over flowers to feed on nectar using its long proboscis1.

Snowberry Clearwing

  • Larval food plants include honeysuckle and snowberry2
  • Adult moths feed on nectar from various flowers

The Snowberry Clearwing, also known as Hemaris diffinis, is another species of hummingbird moth. Its larvae are more specific in their dietary needs, feeding on plants like honeysuckle and snowberry2.

White-Lined Sphinx

  • Medium to large-sized moth
  • Robust body and narrow, elongate front wings3
  • Also known as a “hummingbird” moth

The White-Lined Sphinx moth, from the family Sphingidae, is characterized by its medium to large size and narrow, elongate front wings3. This moth is often referred to as the “hummingbird” moth due to its resemblance.

Hemaris Thysbe

  • 1.5 to 2-inch wingspan
  • Active during the day, similar to a hummingbird4

Hemaris thysbe, another species of hummingbird moth, boasts a wingspan of 1.5 to 2 inches and primarily visits flowers during the day4. Like its hummingbird counterparts, this moth also hovers over flowers to feed.

Hemaris Diffinis

  • Larval food plants include honeysuckle, dogbane, and some members of the rose family5
  • Adult moths feed on nectar from a variety of flowers

Hemaris diffinis, closely related to the Snowberry Clearwing, requires specific food plants for its larvae. These plants include honeysuckle, dogbane, and some members of the rose family, such as hawthorn, cherries, and plums5. Adult moths, however, feed on nectar from various flowers.

Comparison Table

Name Wingspan Active Time Larval Food
Hummingbird Clearwing 1.5-2.25 inches Day General
Snowberry Clearwing (Hemaris diffinis) Not specified Not specified Honeysuckle, snowberry
White-Lined Sphinx Medium-large size Not specified Not specified
Hemaris Thysbe 1.5-2 inches Day Not specified
Hemaris Diffinis Not specified Not specified Honeysuckle, dogbane, rose family members

Predators and Defense Mechanisms

The life of a hummingbird moth is filled with various natural predators and challenges. To survive, these fascinating creatures rely on both camouflage and other defense mechanisms.

Hummingbird moths utilize camouflage to blend in with their surroundings. For instance, their caterpillar stage often resembles the leaves and stems of their host plants. This makes it difficult for predators to spot them among the foliage.

Some common predators of hummingbird moths include birds, spiders, and certain insect-eating mammals like bats. To avoid these threats, hummingbird moths have developed specific behaviors, such as their remarkable hovering flight, which resembles that of a hummingbird. This can confuse potential predators, giving the moth a chance to escape.

Additionally, they employ defense mechanisms like:

  • Emitting a foul-smelling substance when threatened
  • Flashing brightly-colored hind wings to startle predators
  • Rapidly vibrating their wings, creating an intimidating buzzing sound

In conclusion, the hummingbird moth’s survival relies heavily on its ability to adapt, camouflage, and display various defense mechanisms. Through this combination of tactics, these intriguing insects manage to ward off predators and thrive in their natural habitats.

Importance in Ecosystem

The Hummingbird Moth plays a crucial role in ecosystems as a pollinator. They feed on nectar from various flowers, often aiding in their pollination. These moths can be found near specific plants, providing an essential service to plant reproduction.

The larvae of these moths have evolved to rely on particular food plants. Some examples include:

  • Honeysuckle
  • Dogbane
  • Hawthorn
  • Cherries
  • Plums

Pollinators like the Hummingbird Moth are vital within ecosystems, maintaining plant diversity. They also contribute to food production for other species, supporting a healthy food chain.

Identification and Distribution

The Hummingbird Moth is actually a nickname used for several species of sphinx moths, which belong to the family Sphingidae. These moths are medium to large-sized with robust bodies and narrow, elongate front wings 1. They are often mistaken for hummingbirds due to their similar hovering behavior and feeding habits.

The Ruby-throated Hummingbird is a small bird species from the Trochilidae family, known for its bright red throat and agile flying abilities.

Here’s a comparison table to help differentiate between the two:

Feature Hummingbird Moth Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Family Sphingidae (Moths) Trochilidae (Birds)
Size Medium to large-sized Small-sized
Wingshape Wide, flat triangle Narrow, pointed shape
Body Furry appearance Feathered appearance
Time of Activity Daytime Daytime
Primary Food Source Nectar from flowers Nectar and small insects

Distribution: The hummingbird moth species are found across the United States and parts of Canada 2. In contrast, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird is most commonly found in the eastern United States and follows a migratory pattern to Central America during the winter months 3.

To identify a Hummingbird Moth, look for these characteristics:

  • Furry greenish-yellow or tan body
  • Wide reddish-brown band across abdomen
  • Long proboscis to feed on nectar
  • Active during the day

On the other hand, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird can be identified by:

  • Bright red throat in males
  • Greenish upper body
  • Small size (about 3 inches in length)
  • Fast and agile flight patterns

Footnotes

  1. Wisconsin Horticulture 2 3 4

  2. US Forest Service 2 3 4

  3. Missouri Department of Conservation 2 3 4

  4. US Forest Service 2 3

  5. Wisconsin Horticulture 2 3

  6. Missouri Department of Conservation

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 – Large flying orange bug – new to my yard

 

I’m in Sacramento, CA and saw a bug I’ve never seen before in the almost 40 years I’ve lived here. At first I thought it was a bumblebee, it was about the size of an overgrown bumblebee. It was orange-red however and from about 8 feet away it didn’t appear that it was a bumblebee covered in pollen. The orange-red color seemed to be its own. What was also different than a bumble
is that it flew smoothly, not the kind of haphazard way bumbles fly like they’re out of control. The wings were transparent and just behind the head. His body appeared heavy. He wasn’t shiny, he was fuzzy or hairy. The back portion of his body was large and elongated, and hung from his head in the shape of a comma. I’d estimate his body size to be about 1-1/2 inches long, and a good 1/2 inch wide. He didn’t seem to have any trouble flying, but he wasn’t super fast. It was about 8:00 pm in late July, and it was hovering around apple tree shoots coming from the old stump in my yard. I only wish I had a picture to show you. Any idea what it is? Thanks for your time.
Dawn

Dear Dawn,
My guess is a Sphinx Moth, maybe the Snowberry Clearwing Moth, (Hemaris diffinis) which is sometimes called a Bumble Bee Moth. This image is of a preserved specimen,
and the colors appear faded.

Letter 2 – Hummingbird Moth from Japan

 

Japanese Hummingbird Moth
Location: Kawagoe, Japan (just north of Tokyo)
October 23, 2010 12:00 am
Hello Mr Bugman,
I was very happy to find Britta Stein’s recent post on your site, because I’ve seen this bizarre creature too, and couldn’t figure out what it was. The photos were taken on October 19, 2010. The uncanny thing is that it behaves exactly like a hummingbird. The flight is very similar; it can hover motionless (unlike many moths), and it likes nectar. I got the impression this one was about 8cm long.
One of my Japanese companions said that it was a moth, but I thought she was crazy. I owe her an apology!
Signature: Lewis James

Hummingbird Moth

Dear Lewis,
Hummingbird Moth is a relatively generic name for any of the diurnal Sphinx Moths that appear to be hummingbirds as they hover before blossoms gathering nectar.  The species submitted by Britta Stein is different from your moth.  We believe you have submitted photos of a member of the large genus
Macroglossum which is well represented on the Sphingidae of the Eastern Palaearctic website, and a likely candidate is Marcroglossum saga, which according to the Sphingidae of the Eastern Palaearctic, is found throughout Japan.

Hummingbird Moth

Letter 3 – Hummingbird Moth?

 

Yesterday, I spotted what i thought was a hummingbird around my jasmine tree. Upon closer inspection it appeared to be a moth. The most identifiable featurewas it’s extremely bright solid orange wings. It’s body was a blueish purple color with some white markings. I have not been able to identify it on any websites. I will have my camera ready tomorrow. Thank you for your help. I live in South Florida.
Jim Harhart

Dear Jim,
We would love to have that photo if possible. I’m guessing a member of the genus Errinyis, with many members living in Florida. Their upper wings are usually grey, but the lower wings are bright orange. The bodies are often marked with white. My best guess is Errinyis ello. Its caterpillars feed on guava, poinsettia, myrtle and other plants. Here is an image I located online.

Letter 4 – Hummingbird Moth from Japan

 

Subject: Can you identify this bug?
Location: Western Tokyo, Japan
May 27, 2012 3:08 am
Hi there,
I found this winged bug on the side of a wall in Tokyo in late May this year, 2012. I think it might be a cicada, but I’ve never seen one this color before. I’ve attached an image and hope that it can be identified! Thanks!
Signature: JK

Cephonodes hylas

Dear JK,
Diurnal Sphinx Moths in the family Sphingidae are often collectively called Hummingbird Moths because they are often mistaken for hummingbirds as they hover before flowers imbibing from the nectar.  Your moth is
Cephonodes hylasYou may read more about the life cycle of this species on the Sphingidae of the Eastern Palaearctic website.

Thank you for your quick reply and identification!  Your site and service is amazing!
Jeremy

Letter 5 – Mating Ash Spinxes

 

mating moths. Hi there we live in Calgary Alberta Canada . This afternoon I found these two very large moths with there “tails” inside each other. I’m an Engineer and it only took a second to fiqure out what they were doing. They were in danger of meeting up with our dog so I carefully moved then to a shady corner. Never touched then or really disturbed them. They measure 70mm in length head to end I guess. I have never seen moths this big in my life .WOW ! Can you tell me what kind they are and if they are frequent in this area of North America. Just amazing.
Thanks.
Chris H. Calgary.

Hi Chris,
We didn’t recognize your Sphinx Moth species, so we contacted Eric Eaton. He quickly responded: “Actually, they ARE sphingids, the Great Ash Sphinx, Sphinx chersis to be exact. They are apparently uncommon according to Covell’s "Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Moths." Nice find! Eric”

Authors

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  • 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.

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