Moth That Looks Like a Hummingbird: Nature’s Amazing Disguise

Hummingbird moths are fascinating creatures that often leave people in awe as they resemble hummingbirds with their feeding habits and appearance. These intriguing insects belong to the family Sphingidae, and among their species, the most commonly observed is the white-lined sphinx moth, Hyles lineata, as well as the hummingbird clearwing, Hemaris thysbe.

These moths display a unique characteristic of feeding on nectar with their long proboscis while hovering over flowers, just like hummingbirds. The hummingbird clearwing has a greenish-yellow or tan “furry” body with a reddish-brown band across the abdomen and a wingspan of 1½ to 2¼ inches, while the white-lined sphinx moth is a stout-bodied, brown moth with a broad white stripe running diagonally to the outer tip of each front wing and a wingspan of 2.5 to 3.5 inches.

Hummingbird Moth Overview

Moth or Bird?

Hummingbird moths, as their name suggests, bear a striking resemblance to hummingbirds. These fascinating creatures are moths belonging to the Lepidoptera order, but their hovering behavior, rapid wing movement, and feeding habits are similar to those of hummingbirds.

  • Moth: Belongs to the Lepidoptera order
  • Hummingbird: Belongs to the bird family Trochilidae

Species of Hummingbird Moths

There are several species of hummingbird moths, with some of the most common being the Hummingbird Clearwing (Hemaris thysbe) and the White-lined Sphinx Moth (Hyles lineata). These moths are characterized by their unique appearance and behaviors.

Hummingbird Clearwing:

  • Furry greenish-yellow or tan body
  • Wide reddish-brown band across the abdomen
  • Wingspan of 1½ to 2¼ inches
  • Active during the day

White-lined Sphinx Moth:

  • Stout-bodied and furry brown
  • Six white stripes on the body
  • Wingspan of 2½ to 3½ inches
  • Pink coloration on hind wings visible when hovering

Comparison table:

Feature Hummingbird Clearwing White-lined Sphinx Moth
Body Color Greenish-yellow or tan Brown
Stripes/Bands on Body Reddish-brown band Six white stripes
Wingspan 1½ to 2¼ inches 2½ to 3½ inches
Active during Day Day and Night
Hind wing coloration None Pink

Physical Characteristics

Body Structure

The hummingbird moth, also known as the white-lined sphinx moth, has a stout and furry brown body. This large moth is characterized by six white stripes crossing its body. The body structure and size often lead to confusion with actual hummingbirds.

Wings and Flight

  • Wingspan: 2½ to 3½ inches
  • Wing shape: Triangular forewings and shorter hindwings
  • Wing color: Dark olive brown with a broad tan band

The wings of hummingbird moths are covered in scales, but many species lose scales and become clearwing hummingbird moths. Their swift and hovering flight patterns resemble those of hummingbirds, which is the reason behind their name.

Proboscis and Feeding

  • Proboscis: The hummingbird moth has a long, straw-like proboscis.
  • Feeding habits: They feed on nectar from flowers while hovering mid-air, just like hummingbirds.
Feature Hummingbird Moth Actual Hummingbird
Body Structure Stout, furry Sleek, not furry
Wingspan 2½ to 3½ inches 4 to 5 inches
Wings & Flight Hovering Hovering
Proboscis Present, long Not present
Feeding on nectar Yes, while-hovering Yes, while-hovering

Behavior and Habitat

Feeding Preferences and Pollination

Hummingbird moths, found in North America, are daytime creatures that exhibit unique hovering behavior while feeding on nectar from flowers. These moths have a preference for plants, such as Monarda flowers, that provide easy access to nectar through their long proboscis.

  • Pros:
    • Efficient pollinators
    • Daytime activity
    • Adaptive feeding method
  • Cons:
    • Limited to flowers with long tubular structures

Comparison Table: Hummingbird Moth vs. Actual Hummingbird

Feature Hummingbird Moth Actual Hummingbird
Size 1½ to 2¼ inches wingspan 3 to 5 inches in length
Feeding Preferences Nectar from tubular flowers Nectar from tubular flowers
Hovering Behaviour Yes Yes
Pollination Efficiency High High
Day or Night activity Daytime Daytime

Migratory Patterns

These unique moths do not have defined migratory patterns. Instead, they adapt to various environments depending on factors like food availability and weather. The species can be found in habitats such as meadows, gardens, and woodland edges across North America.

  • Found in diverse environments
  • Adaptable to changing habitats
  • No specific migratory pattern

Life Cycle

Egg and Larval Stages

The life cycle of a hummingbird moth begins with eggs laid on host plants like honeysuckle and viburnum.

  • Caterpillar: After hatching, the larvae (caterpillars) feed on foliage, metamorphosing over several weeks.
  • Snowberry clearwing: It is lighter-colored than others in the Sphingidae family, resembling a bumblebee.
  • Tobacco hornworm: Known for damaging tomato plants, it later becomes a hawk moth.

Pupal and Adult Stages

Upon reaching maturity, the larvae form pupae to undergo transformation into adult moths.

  • Cocoon: They form a protective outer shell.
  • Hawk moths/sphinx moths: Many hummingbird moths belong to this group, known for their distinct “hummingbird-like” behavior.
  • White-lined sphinx moth: A common hummingbird moth with distinctive colors and markings.
  • Hummingbird clearwing: They have a green or tan body with a reddish-brown band on their abdomen and a wingspan of 1½ to 2¼ inches.

Host Plants

Hummingbird moths and their larvae rely on specific plants for nourishment and reproduction.

Examples of host plants:

  • Honeysuckle
  • Viburnum
  • Snowberry
  • Tomato plants (for tobacco hornworm)

Comparison Table: Hawk Moths vs. Hummingbird Clearwing

Feature Hawk Moths Hummingbird Clearwing
Size Larger (3+ inches wingspan) Smaller (1½ to 2¼ inches wingspan)
Coloration Diverse patterns Green/tan body, reddish-brown band
Activity Mainly nocturnal Diurnal (daytime)
Pollinators Efficient Efficient

In conclusion, the life cycle of hummingbird moths includes their tiny beginnings as eggs, gradual development into caterpillars, and eventual emergence as adult moths. Throughout their lives, they rely on specific host plants for sustenance and reproduction.

Species of Sphingidae Family

White-Lined Sphinx Moth

The White-Lined Sphinx Moth (Hyles lineata) is a large moth with a stout furry brown body and distinctive wing patterns. It has a wingspan of 2½ to 3½ inches.

Features of the White-Lined Sphinx Moth:

  • Stout-bodied with a furry brown body
  • Six white stripes crossing the body
  • Long, narrow, triangular forewings
  • Broad tan band and series of white lines on wings

The caterpillars of this species feed on various plants, contributing to their growth and development.

Clearwing Moth Species

Among the Clearwing Moth species, the Hummingbird Clearwing Moth (Hemaris thysbe) is known for its resemblance to hummingbirds. It has a greenish-yellow or tan body with a reddish-brown band across the abdomen.

Features of the Hummingbird Clearwing Moth:

  • Furry greenish-yellow or tan body
  • Reddish-brown band across the abdomen
  • Wingspan of 1½ to 2¼ inches
  • Proboscis for feeding on nectar

Caterpillars of this species usually feed on honeysuckle plants.

Comparison table of White-Lined Sphinx Moth and Hummingbird Clearwing Moth:

Feature White-Lined Sphinx Moth Hummingbird Clearwing Moth
Wingspan 2½ to 3½ inches 1½ to 2¼ inches
Body color Furry brown Greenish-yellow or tan
Wing pattern White stripes Clearwing
Caterpillar food Various plants Honeysuckle plants

Interactions and Impact

Pollination

Hummingbird moths are essential pollinators as they visit various flowers during the day, hovering over them to feed on nectar using their long proboscis. They share similarities with hummingbirds, displaying a plump body and a hovering behavior while they feed.

Example: Some common flowers that hummingbird moths visit include:

  • Monarda
  • Lantana
  • Honeysuckle

Predators

Predators of hummingbird moths include:

  • Birds: These are a significant threat to moths as they can easily catch them while they’re hovering over flowers.
  • Spiders: Moths may fall prey to certain spiders when they fly near their webs.

Threats

The tomato hornworm is a notable threat to certain plants, as they are a type of hornworm caterpillar that can cause damage when in abundance. They transform into the five-spotted hawkmoth upon reaching maturity.

Comparison Table:

Feature Hummingbird Hummingbird Moth
Size 3-5 inches 1½ to 2¼ inches
Wingspan 3-5 inches 1½ to 2¼ inches
Body Appearance Feathered Furry, greenish-yellow or tan
Feeding Method Long beak, tubelike tongue Long proboscis
Flight Pattern Hovering and swift Hovering and rapid
Primary Pollinators Yes Yes

The hummingbird moth may resemble butterflies or bee moths due to their similar size and feeding patterns. However, they have distinct characteristics, such as a “furry” body, that make them distinguishable from other pollinators.

Remember, understanding the interactions and the impact of these various species in meadows helps promote the conservation of these essential pollinators and the ecosystems they inhabit.

Additional Information

Distribution and Range

Hummingbird moths can be found in various regions, including:

  • Africa
  • Asia
  • Europe
  • Canada
  • Mexico

There are 23 species of Hummingbird moths, with some notable examples being:

  • Hemaris gracilis
  • Hemaris thetis
  • Snowberry clearwing moths

These moths are active during the day and are known for their barrel-shaped bodies and clearwing characteristics.

Gardening Tips

For backyard gardeners interested in attracting hummingbird moths, consider planting the following:

  • Dogbane
  • Viburnums
  • Columbines

They also enjoy:

  • Night-blooming flowers
  • Evening primrose
  • Long-necked flowers
  • Moon gardens

These moths, like bumblebees and hummingbird hawk moths, play an essential role in the ecosystem as pollinators. By incorporating plants they love in your garden, you can enjoy their unique beauty while also promoting biodiversity.

Feature Hummingbird Moth Bumblebee Hummingbird Hawk Moth
Size 1 to 2.5 inches Varying 1.6 to 1.8 inches
Active Daytime Daytime Daytime
Family Lepidoptera Apidae Sphingidae

Please note that it’s essential to maintain a balanced ecosystem in your garden, so avoid making exaggerated or false claims about the positive impacts of attracting these moths.

In conclusion, by understanding the distribution and range of hummingbird moths and providing gardening tips, you can create a haven for these remarkable creatures while also supporting a healthy ecosystem.

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 – 1000s of Whitelined Sphinx Caterpillars in Joshua Tree National Park

 

Subject:  Whitelined Sphinx Caterpillars in Joshua Tree National Park
Geographic location of the bug:  Joshua Tree National Park, California
Date: 04/05/2019
Time: 8:15 AM PDT
Daniel took a much needed break from the office on Thursday to drive to Joshua Tree National Park with Sharon to view the superbloom phenomenon.  At the Cottonwood Springs entrance to the park, the wild flowers were most spectacular, and it seemed that every plant had at least one Whitelined Sphinx Caterpillar feeding on the vegetation.  Sharon asked why there were so many.  In years with substantial precipitation falling in the desert, there is an increase in vegetation, and that provided more food for more caterpillars that in turn provide more food for birds, rodents and other insectivores.  Periodically, there are population explosions of Whitelined Sphinx Caterpillars.  Though most of the caterpillars were dark, we were still able to locate a few lighter individuals.

Whitelined Sphinx Cateprillars: Dark and Light forms.
Whitelined Sphinx Caterpillars: Dark form
Whitelined Sphinx Caterpillar: Light form

 

Letter 2 – Bug of the Month April 2014: Whitelined Sphinx

 

Subject: large moth
Location: southern nevada
March 31, 2014 7:07 am
the last few months these big moths have been everywhere and my little brother is dying to know what they are. i’d say it’s bigger than a quarter at least
Signature: curious

Whitelined Sphinx
Whitelined Sphinx

Dear curious,
We have been getting in increasing number of requests to identify Whitelined Sphinxes, the moth species in your image, and we have decided to make your submission the Bug of the Month for April 2014.  We suspect there might be a significant annual Whitelined Sphinx population this spring, and we also got a Wanted Poster from University of Entomology PhD candidate Cristina Francois to report significant sightings of masses of Whitelined Sphinx Caterpillars.  During favorable years, the Caterpillars, which can be eaten, are found in great numbers.  We are currently observing Whitelined Sphinx Moths very regularly as they are attracted to the porch light.

Letter 3 – Sphinx Moth resembles bird

 

Subject: half bird?!? bug!
Location: Toronto, Canada
July 4, 2012 9:17 am
Hi
We saw this bug crawling across our lawn in Toronto, Canada. It appeared to have a damaged wing and was covered in a grey dust.
It was huge and almost looks like it has the head of a budge!
Love your site…just discovered and definitely bookmarked.
Cheers
Signature: tom

Newly Eclosed Sphinx Moth

Hi Tom,
This newly eclosed Sphinx Moth in the genus
Manduca has recently emerged from its pupa and its wings have not yet fully expanded.  We believe it is either the Carolina Sphinx, Manduca sexta (see Sphingidae of the Americas), or the Five Spotted Hawkmoth, Manduca quinquemaculata (see Sphingidae of the Americas).  The two species look similar and your photo does not show enough characteristics for us to be able to tell the difference.  Both species have caterpillars that feed on the leaves of tomato plants and related plants in the family.  Pupation occurs underground.  We suspect you might have a vegetable patch nearby.  We thought your birdlike moth would be a member of the family Sphingidae because its members are sometimes called Hummingbird Moths and diurnal species are frequently mistaken for hummingbirds when they hover in place while nectaring.  Though we were surprised with your image, we must say that this plump newly metamorphosed moth really does resemble a bird.

Hi Daniel,
Thank you for the thorough answer!  We definitely have a vegetable patch nearby…tomatoes and peppers!
I apologize for the poor images, i only had my smartphone camera and nothing better.
My wife and I were shocked at the shear size of the (now known) moth and that odd birdlike head.  I have lived in Toronto for my entire life and we have had gardens at this location since 1979.  We have never seen anything like this in the past.  Are they common in this part of the world or is this another example of strange weather patterns forcing various species to travel further north? (like the recent findings of Monarchs in Edmonton).  I just read on one of your links that they are irregular in Southern Ontario and only reported 2 hours south of us in London.  I hope this isn’t a bad sign!
Thank you again and thank you for opening a new, interesting world of information!
Cheers,
Tom

Hi Again Tom,
According to the Sphingidae of the Americas website Ontario page,
Manduca quinquemaculata is a native species and Manduca sexta is an ” irregular migrant.”  Since we cannot tell the difference in your photo, and since both species are reported from Ontario, we would not get unduly alarmed just yet.  Climate patterns are changing, and we should come to expect the appearance as well as the disappearance of species in certain areas because of temperature changes.

Letter 4 – WANTED: Reports of Whitelined Sphinx Caterpillars

 

Hi Daniel,
A Ph.D. candidate at the University of Arizona is seeking information on White-lined Sphinx Moth larvae, especially large aggregations of them.
I have posted her “Wanted!” poster on the LepSoc Facebook page, and I told her I’d also send them to you (PDF and JPEG formats, attached) to be considered for sharing on What’s That Bug?
Julian P. Donahue
WANTED!

WANTED
WANTED

Hi Julian,
We are unable to post large files to What’s That Bug? so we included a link to the large pdf and a smaller version as a visual.

 

 

Letter 5 – Large numbers of Whitelined Sphinx Caterpillars in Arizona!!!

 

Subject: Caterpillars on the march
Location: Northern Arizona
August 17, 2014 5:36 pm
This afternoon we discovered thousands (no, I’m not kidding -THOUSANDS-) of these caterpillars
traveling south across our property. Of course we went straight to the garden to see if that’s where they were coming from, but they were coming right through the fence from the State Land Trust to the north of us! Some of them were nibbling on leaves near the chicken pen, but none of them bothered any of the plants in the garden. We scooped up a bunch of them for this photo and then tossed them to the chickens. The chickens were not impressed.
We’re in Prescott, AZ at about 5,000 ft elevation in oak-chapparal country.
Signature: gnatknees

Population Explosion of Whitelined Sphinx Caterpillars
Population Explosion of Whitelined Sphinx Caterpillars

Dear gnatknees,
These are caterpillars of the Whitelined Sphinx,
Hyles lineata, and they go through periodic cycles that include occasional population explosions in the desert regions of the American southwest.  The last major population explosion we received visual documentation of was in 2007.  Earlier this year, we received a request from a PhD candidate from the University of Arizona to report any masses of caterpillars, and if you are so inclined, you can email cfrancois@email.arizona.edu and make a report.

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.

    View all posts
  • 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.

    View all posts

21 thoughts on “Moth That Looks Like a Hummingbird: Nature’s Amazing Disguise”

  1. Heading south on I-17 about 30 miles from Phoenix hundreds of catapillars were crossing the freeway. Unfortunately most weren’t making it due to heavy holiday traffic and those that do will come up against highway divider. Strange sight.

    Reply
  2. We’ve seen what we think are lots of these caterpillars today and yesterday (Sept. 14-15, 2014) at the Wickenburg Sportsman Club, Az.
    The ones we saw today were all trying to dig holes in the ground. Why are they doing that?

    Reply
  3. We had them about that time on our 15 acres outside of Ash Fork. I think they burrowed into the ground. Waiting for the Moth form to emerge.

    Reply
  4. It’s August 7, 2017 & I’m in Tucson. Over by TIA, there are at least 100, maybe more in the parking lot of Alorica. I have never seen so many & had no clue what they were til I looked the up on Google. They were going into the building & workers at Alorica were bringing them back outside.

    Reply
  5. I am in Casa Grande,AZ ..there are 1,000’s of them in my yard…they need to leave…how long will they hang around? Can I do anything to get rid of them faster?

    Reply
    • Such population explosions are cyclical, and we expect they will soon be gone. Since they are edible, many will get eaten by predators.

      Reply
  6. Here in Tucson ,Arizona. There are thousands and I mean seriously thousands of these beautiful little caterpillars crawling across the road. Many of which have been hit by passing traffic. But there are still so so many. They cover about a 200 foot stretch of road and who knows where they came from or where they are going

    Reply
  7. I was on the cholla trail at Thunderbird conservation park this morning and they were everywhere. I was googling what they were and came across your site so thank you for the identification.

    Reply
  8. Thank you! I hope they are safe for dogs to eat – mine were gobbling them down today like crazy (so far, all seems normal)…

    Reply

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