Sphinx moths and hummingbird moths are often subjects of confusion due to their similarities, especially when spotted hovering around flowers. Understanding their differences can help clarify the distinction between these fascinating insects. Both moths belong to the Sphingidae family, with certain species commonly known as hummingbird moths due to their resemblance to the bird during flight and feeding.
The term hummingbird moth typically refers to several species of sphinx moths, such as the Hummingbird Clearwing and the White-Lined Sphinx. Depending on the region, the term can vary; however, the key similarity among them is their hovering behavior they exhibit while feeding. Sphinx moths, on the other hand, encompass a wide range of species beyond those that resemble hummingbirds.
In summary, all hummingbird moths are a type of sphinx moth, but not all sphinx moths are hummingbird moths. When considering these two groups of moths, it is important to remember that while they share some similar characteristics, not every sphinx moth exhibits the unique hovering and feeding behavior commonly associated with hummingbird moths. Understanding this distinction clarifies the relationship between these fascinating insects and adds to our appreciation of their diverse appearances and behaviors.
Hummingbird Moth and Sphinx Moth Overview
Sphinx moths, also known as hawk moths, belong to the family Sphingidae. They are typically:
- Large and heavy-bodied
- Long, pointed abdomen
- Long, pointed forewings
Sphinx moths are known for their fast flying and aerobatic abilities.
Hummingbird moths are a nickname given to various species of sphinx moths. They share similarities with sphinx moths and are characterized by:
- Medium to large-sized
- Robust body
- Narrow, elongate front wings
Hummingbird moths resemble hummingbirds when feeding, as they hover near flowers and sip nectar through a long proboscis.
|Feature||Sphinx Moths||Hummingbird Moths|
|Size||Large, heavy-bodied||Medium to large-sized|
|Body Shape||Long, pointed abdomen||Robust body|
|Wings||Long, pointed forewings||Narrow, elongate front wings|
|Flight||Fast, aerobatic||Hover near flowers|
While sphinx moths and hummingbird moths are often used interchangeably, they do have some differences. Remember that hummingbird moths are a subset of sphinx moths, sharing the Sphingidae family.
Physical Characteristics and Behavior
Size and Body Shape
Sphinx moths, also known as hawk moths, are typically large and heavy-bodied insects with a long, pointed abdomen. Their wingspan ranges from 3.5 to 6 inches, making them one of the largest moth species in the world. Hummingbird moths, a type of sphinx moth, are named due to their similar size and body shape to hummingbirds. Both of them have:
- Long, narrow wings
- Thick bodies
- Ability to hover while feeding
Color and Wing Patterns
Sphinx moths exhibit various colors and wing patterns depending on the species. For instance, the white-lined sphinx moth has:
- A furry brown body with six white stripes
- Dark olive brown-colored forewings with a broad tan band
While individual species may vary, sphinx moths generally display intricate patterns and mottled coloring on their wings, assisting in camouflage.
Feeding Habits and Pollination
Sphinx moths are known for their ability to hover near flowers, feeding on nectar through their very long proboscis (like a nectar straw). During feeding, sphinx moths also play a crucial role as pollinators by transferring pollen from one flower to another. Their unique hovering ability, combined with their long proboscis, allow them to access different types of flowers, making them versatile pollinators.
|Size||Large, heavy-bodied; 3.5-6 inch wingspan||Similar to sphinx moth, resembles a hummingbird|
|Color and Wing Patterns||Varies; intricate patterns and mottled colors||–|
|Feeding Habits||Hover near flowers; feed on nectar||Same as sphinx moth|
|Pollination Role||Act as important pollinators||Same as sphinx moth|
Common Species and Their Habitats
The White-lined Sphinx Moth (Hyles lineata) is a large, stout-bodied moth with a furry brown body and six white stripes. Its wingspan ranges from 2.5 to 3.5 inches, and it possesses long, narrow, triangular forewings and shorter hindwings. This species can be found across North America, including the United States and Canada.
- Large, stout body
- Furry brown body with six white stripes
- Long, narrow, triangular forewings
- Shorter hindwings
- Wingspan 2.5-3.5 inches
The Snowberry Clearwing (Hemaris diffinis) is a member of the hummingbird moth group. It has a wingspan of about 1.5-2 inches and can be found in various habitats throughout the US, including Florida, Texas, and California.
- Wingspan 1.5-2 inches
- Found across the United States
Hummingbird Clearwing Moth
The Hummingbird Clearwing Moth is another hummingbird moth species belonging to the genus Hemaris. It is similar in size to the Snowberry Clearwing but can be distinguished by its coloration and slightly different wing patterns. This species can be found in a variety of habitats across North America.
|Feature||White-lined Sphinx||Snowberry Clearwing||Hummingbird Clearwing Moth|
|Wingspan||2.5-3.5 inches||1.5-2 inches||1.5-2 inches|
|Habitat||North America||United States||North America|
Now that we’ve covered three common species and their habitats, feel free to explore and learn more about these fascinating moths on your own!
Caterpillar and Cocoon Stages
Hornworms and Caterpillars
Sphinx moths and hummingbird moths share similarities in their caterpillar stages. Both have hornworms as a caterpillar type. Some common hornworms include the tobacco hornworm and the tomato hornworm.
Let’s compare two different Sphinx and hummingbird moth caterpillar types:
Hornworm Comparison Table
|Tobacco Hornworm||Snowberry Clearwing Caterpillar|
|Color||Green with white diagonal stripes||Green or yellow with black markings|
|Horn||Red or black curved horn||Short, black, and straight horn|
|Host plants||Tobacco, tomatoes, and other nightshades||Honeysuckle, dogbane, and snowberry|
Here are some characteristics of hornworms and caterpillars:
- Often vividly colored
- Have an exterior horn near their tail
- Generally feed on plant leaves
Cocoons and Metamorphosis
During metamorphosis, these caterpillars transform into adult moths. Silk moths, such as the Luna moth, spin silk cocoons. Sphinx and hummingbird moths, however, create a protective shell called a pupa rather than a silk cocoon.
Key features of these pupae include:
- Hard protective exterior
- Found either in soil or on plant surfaces
- The moth develops from the pupa
As pupae, both Sphinx and hummingbird moths undergo a similar process. Once they emerge as adults, their features differ more significantly, making them unique in appearance and behavior.
Worldwide Distribution and Related Species
Global Presence of Sphinx Moths
Sphinx moths, also known as hawk moths, are part of the Sphingidae family and can be found in various regions across the globe, including Europe, Africa, and Asia. These moths usually display convergent evolution and have both diurnal and nocturnal species. Some common features of sphinx moths include:
- Long narrow wings
- Thick bodies
- Fast flying and often highly aerobatic
- Ability to hover in place, much like hummingbirds
Clearwing Moths and Relatives
Clearwing moths are a rare group of moths within the Sphingidae family, sharing similarities with both butterflies and sphinx moths. Key characteristics of clearwing moths:
- Translucent wings, resembling those of butterflies
- Active during the day
- Efficient pollinators
Comparison Table: Sphinx Moths vs. Clearwing Moths
|Feature||Sphinx Moths||Clearwing Moths|
|Wings||Long & narrow||Translucent|
|Activity||Diurnal & nocturnal||Diurnal|
|Flight||Fast, aerobatic, hover||Hover|
Flowers and Pollination
Attracting Moths to Your Garden
To attract sphinx moths, also known as hummingbird moths, to your garden, consider planting fragrant, night-blooming flowers. Examples of such flowers include:
- Evening primrose
These flowers release their fragrance mainly at night, which attracts moths and other nocturnal pollinators. A collection of night-blooming flowers can create a beautiful moon garden for both humans and pollinators to enjoy.
Moths and Flower Types
Sphinx moths are known for pollinating flowers during their quest for flower nectar. Their preference for flowers includes:
- Tube-shaped flowers
- Night-blooming flowers
- Fragrant flowers
They move from flower to flower, transferring pollen and fertilizing the plants in the process. Some popular moth-pollinated flowers other than the ones mentioned above are butterfly bush and tubular flowers such as nicotiana. Here are some characteristics of flowers visited by sphinx moths:
- Open at night
- Produce nectar
- Often fragrant
|Flowers for Moths||Fragrant||Night-Blooming||Tube-Shaped|
By planting these flowers in your garden, you can attract sphinx moths and other nocturnal pollinators, while also enjoying the beauty and fragrance of the flowers.
Identification and Interesting Facts
Differentiating Moths and Butterflies
- Moths typically have feathery antennae, while butterflies have club-like antennae.
- Moths are generally nocturnal, whereas butterflies are active during the day.
- Moths have a more robust and typically less brightly colored body than butterflies.
Unique Aspects of Hummingbird and Sphinx Moths
- Body shape: Both moth families have a stout and more streamlined body shape compared to other moths.
- Wing color: Many species of both moths display vibrant wing colors and patterns.
- Flight speed: Both types of moths are known for their fast and agile flight capabilities, with some capable of hovering like actual hummingbirds.
- Habitats: These moths can be found in various habitats, including forests, gardens, and meadows.
- Diets: Both moths primarily feed on nectar from flowers using their long proboscises.
- The White-lined Sphinx Moth, Hyles lineata, is an example of a hummingbird moth with stripes on its furry brown body and a wingspan of 2½ to 3½ inches.
- The Rustic Sphinx Moth, Manduca rustica, is a sphinx moth with mottled zig-zag markings and a wingspan of around 3 1/2 to 6 inches. This moth is related to the tomato and tobacco hornworms.
|Hummingbird Moth||Sphinx Moth|
|Transparent wings in some species||Opaque wings|
|May emit a humming noise during flight||Typically silent flight|
|Commonly mistaken for bees or hummingbirds||Commonly mistaken for hawk moths|
Habits and Behavior
- Both families of moths are typically active during dusk or at night but may also be observed during the day on suitable plants such as cherries, hawthorns, and viburnums.
- They are often attracted to flowers that are open during the evening and night, such as those with strong, sweet scents.
By understanding the unique aspects and differences in their identification, it becomes easier to differentiate between hummingbird moths and sphinx moths.
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 – Whitelined Sphinx
White Lined Sphinx Moth
May 18, 2011 4:14 pm
Hey! I just found your site and love it, thought I might contribute a little bit. Here is a little friend, what I think is a white lined sphinx moth. It was a warm Nebraska night when this little fellow landed on me and decided to start posing. It stayed on me for about an hour, even as I was walking around and taking pictures. It was a pretty cool experience. Eventually I had to take it off and it just flew away into the night!
We are terribly amused with your photos of a Whitelined Sphinx, Hyles lineata, one of the commonest members of its family and also one of the widest ranging. The Whitelined Sphinx may be encountered across North America.
Letter 2 – Whitelined Sphinx
Subject: What is this?
Location: Fresno California
May 26, 2014 12:59 am
Found this in the garage and have no idea what it is..I know one thing it’s huge!
This is a Whitelined Sphinx, one of the most common, larger moths found in arid regions of North America.
Letter 3 – Whitelined Sphinx
Subject: id a “hummingbird moth”
Location: Central Nebraska
August 26, 2014 5:04 pm
Could you please identify this “moth”?
Signature: Amateur photo “bug”
Dear Amateur photo “bug”,
This is a nice action image of a Whitelined Sphinx.
Letter 4 – Whitelined Sphinx
Subject: What is this flying bug?
Location: Rodeo Beach, Marin Co, CA
November 15, 2014 8:47 pm
Hi – attached are photos, one with and one without flash, of a flying thing that from a distance I first thought was a type of hummingbird because it was so big. Can you tell me what it is? Thank you
This is a Whitelined Sphinx Moth, Hyles lineata, a crepuscular species that is most commonly sighted near dawn and dusk. Because of its large size and its manner of flight, it is easily confused with a hummingbird. We are thrilled that you have offered us two images, one that freezes the movement of the flight of this Whitelined Sphinx, and another with a slower shutter speed that effectively illustrates the rapidly beating wings.
thank you for ID’ing this for me! And. I’m glad you like the photos.
Letter 5 – Whitelined Sphinx
February 25, 2015 10:37 am
Bugman, what in the heavens is this world coming to? I was starving and wishing that someone would make me a hot meal when I went outside and noticed this monstrosity out on the cement! Now I don’t know about you, but I think it’s safe to say that this creature is a sure fire fact that evolution exists as it is most certainly something entirely new!
PS. I hope you appreciate my photography skills as I almost lost my head taking them!
Signature: Tight Red Jeans
Dear Tight Red Jeans,
This Whitelined Sphinx or Striped Morning Sphinx, Hyles lineata, is one of the most common, larger moths found in California. When conditions are right, great quantities of the edible caterpillars are found on desert plants, and they will metamorphose into moths that are generally seen at dawn or dusk, are attracted to lights, and that are easily mistaken for hummingbirds. You could have eaten the moth to prevent starvation. We are curious to find out how you almost lost your head.
Letter 6 – Whitelined Sphinx
Subject: What is it?
Location: San Diego, CA
March 18, 2015 9:45 pm
Found this in our kitchen tonight. Six year old is studying insects in science now and doing a report on dragonflies. Curious what this critter is.
Signature: The Duncans
Alas your child cannot use these images to illustrate a report on Dragonflies as it is a Sphinx Moth, more specifically a Whitelined Sphinx, Hyles lineata. Like dragonflies, Whitelined Sphinx Moths are very aerodynamic in flight and they are often mistaken for hummingbirds. Whitelined Sphinx Moths are currently flying in Southern California. This is a species that periodically experiences population explosions that tend to coincide with years when there is lush desert growth. The rain patter this winter, though we are still firmly entrenched in a drought, was so wide spread that it was conducive to a lush desert growth, and we expect it to be a big year for both Caterpillars and adult Whitelined Sphinx Moth.
Thanks so much for the info. My daughter was excited to read your email. We didn’t really think it was a dragonfly, but have had insects on the brain. We appreciate your work!
Letter 7 – Whitelined Sphinx
Subject: Weird Moth
April 8, 2015 9:57 pm
I’ve identified lots of bugs thanks to your website and I was hoping you could help me identify this moth I found flying outside. I didn’t get any pictures of the body, but it looked tan with black spots. I’ve never seen a moth like this and I was curious about what it was. The body was about two inches long and I usually don’t see moths that big where I live. I would really appreciate it if you could help me out. I really want to be an entomologist, and I would like to know as much as I can about bugs for now. Thanks!
Signature: Melanie Ramos
Good luck on your career goals. This is a Whitelined Sphinx, Hyles lineata, a common species in California as well as in most of North America. We just posted an image of a Whitelined Sphinx Caterpillar. In arid desert areas, there are periodical population explosions of both the adult moths and the caterpillars. We are currently visited nightly by anywhere between one and four individuals coming to the porch light.