Privet Hawk Moth Facts: Discover the Intriguing World of this Unique Insect

The Privet Hawk Moth is an intriguing species belonging to the hawk moth family. These nocturnal creatures are known for their fascinating features and behaviors. As its name suggests, the moth is often found residing near privet shrubs, which grow up to 15 feet in height with elliptic or ovate-shaped leaves on the branches [1].

These hawk moths are large, heavy-bodied, and have a long pointed abdomen. They are experts in hovering near flowers to feed on nectar using their long proboscis [2]. Their unique design of long tapering scales on their body aids them in staying warm, especially during cool nights, where they maintain high body temperatures by shivering [3].

Privet Hawk Moth Description

Appearance

The Privet Hawk Moth (Sphinx ligustri) is known for its distinct green color, marked by white stripes on its body. A prominent feature is its yellow spot, which adds a striking contrast to the green and white hues.

Wingspan

This species of hawk moth typically has a significant wingspan ranging from 9 cm to 12 cm. To give a better understanding, the following comparison table showcases the wingspan of the Privet Hawk Moth alongside a more common-winged creature like a sparrow:

Species Wingspan
Privet Hawk Moth 9 – 12 cm
House Sparrow 21 cm

Male and Female Differences

Both male and female Privet Hawk Moths share the same attractive green color and white stripes. Some differences between males and females include:

  • Males have more pronounced and larger antennae
  • Females may have slightly larger bodies due to egg production

In summary, the Privet Hawk Moth is a fascinating species with its unique green color, conspicuous scales, and white stripes. Its significant wingspan and subtle differences between males and females make it a captivating subject of study.

Lifecycle and Behavior

Eggs and Larvae

The lifecycle of Privet Hawk Moths (Sphinx ligustri Linnaeus) starts as eggs laid on leaves. Female moths deposit small, greenish-yellow eggs on the underside of leaves. A few days to a week later, these hatch into tiny, caterpillar-like larvae.

Observing the larvae feed, they grow in size, consuming leaves, shedding several times, and gradually maturing over the course of the summer.

Caterpillars

As caterpillars, the Privet Hawk Moth’s larvae are easily recognizable by their vibrant green color and purple diagonal stripes. A notable feature is their impressive blue tail spine or “horn” jutting out from their rear end.

Caterpillars are known to make a hissing sound when alarmed, achieved by forcing air through their spiracles to scare away predators. They mainly inhabit privet, lilac, and ash trees in woodland areas, parks, and gardens.

Pupa to Adult Stage

Once caterpillars have stored enough energy, they leave their host plants to find a suitable pupation site, usually underground or occasionally in leaf litter. Here, they form a brown, boat-shaped pupa to transform into an adult moth. This pupation stage can last from a few weeks to a few months.

Adult Moth

When Privet Hawk Moths emerge as adults, they exhibit a few distinct traits:

  • Size: With a wingspan of 9-12 centimeters, they are one of the largest moths in Europe and North America.
  • Color: Adult moths showcase grey and black forewings with pink hindwings on the underside.
  • Sexual dimorphism: Males have a larger, brushier abdomen than females.

Adult moths are active mainly at night and feed on nectar from flowers. They live a short life, focusing on reproduction before dying.

Feature Privet Hawk Moth
Scientific Name Sphinx ligustri
Eggs Greenish-yellow
Caterpillar Green with purple stripes and blue tail spine
Pupation Underground or in leaf litter
Adult Moth Grey and black forewings with pink hindwings, large wingspan, and short lifespan

Habitat and Distribution

UK and Europe

The Privet Hawk Moth (Sphinx ligustri), a member of the Sphingidae family, is commonly found in gardens and woodlands across the UK and Europe. Their preferred habitat consists of:

  • Gardens
  • Woodlands
  • Hedgerows
  • Ash trees
  • Host plants such as privets, jasmine, and lilac

Throughout June and July, these moths emerge to feed on nectar from various plants like honeysuckle. They lay their eggs on the leaves of host plants, where their larvae will later feed. In the UK, their distribution spans England and Wales, predominantly in woodlands with nutrient-rich soil. The Privet Hawk Moth’s conservation status remains stable.

Identification tips:

  • Large size: wingspan of 9-12 cm
  • Pink and black horizontal stripes on the abdomen
  • Rests with wings tightly closed around body, resembling tree trunks

Australia

The Privet Hawk Moth is also found in Australia, where they inhabit a variety of environments such as urban areas, forests, and woodlands. In Australia, their distribution expands across the Palearctic realm, including North Africa.

Comparison of habitats:

Habitat UK and Europe Australia
Preferred environments Gardens, woodlands, ash trees, hedgerows Urban areas, forests, woodlands
Host plants Privets, jasmine, lilac, ash trees Variable, depending on region
Times of activity June and July Similar, depending on local climate

As they are present in both the UK, Europe, and Australia, the Privet Hawk Moth easily adapts to different habitats and vegetation types while maintaining similar behaviors and characteristics.

Relationship with Plants

Favorite Plants

The Privet Hawk Moth (Sphinx ligustri) is known to favor certain plants when it comes to feeding and oviposition. Among these plants, privet, jasmine, and lilac stand out as the moth’s preferred sources of nectar. All three are flowering shrubs that provide the moth with the sustenance it requires.

  • Privet (Ligustrum spp.): A common hedgerow shrub, often used for landscaping purposes.
  • Jasmine (Jasminum spp.): Typically found in tropical climates, offering attractive white or yellow flowers.
  • Lilac (Syringa spp.): Known for its beautiful, fragrant blooms found in shades of purple, white, or pink.

Host Plants

In addition to favoring the plants above, the Privet Hawk Moth lays its eggs on specific host plants. Ash trees, hedgerows, and holly bushes serve as ideal locations for its larvae to feed on leaves and grow.

Host Plant Description
Ash Tree (Fraxinus spp.) Deciduous trees known for their compound leaves and strong wood.
Hedgerow (mixed species) A tightly spaced row of shrubs and/or trees, often used for boundaries.
Holly (Ilex spp.) An evergreen shrub best known for its spiny leaves and bright red berries.

Using these host plants, the hawk moth larvae have better chances of survival and proper nourishment. The selection of these plants help support the moth’s life cycle, from laying eggs to the development of their offspring.

Predators and Defense Mechanisms

Common Predators

Privet Hawk Moths face various predators in their natural habitat, such as:

  • Birds: Many species of birds are known to prey on hawk moths.
  • Bats: These nocturnal creatures can capture moths while they’re flying.
  • Small mammals: Rodents and other small mammals might consume these moths as well.

Defense Mechanisms

To deter and defend against predators, the Privet Hawk Moth has a few tricks up its wing:

  • Spines: The caterpillar form of the Privet Hawk Moth has spines on its body that can be unappetizing or even harmful to predators.
  • Hissing sound: Some hawk moths are capable of producing a hissing sound when they feel threatened, potentially scaring away predators.

The following table compares some characteristics of the Privet Hawk Moth’s predators:

Predator Feeding Time Location
Birds Day Everywhere
Bats Night Everywhere
Small mammals Both Ground

Please keep in mind that these facts serve as general information and may not apply to every situation or individual instance of the Privet Hawk Moth and its interaction with predators. However, understanding their common predators and defense mechanisms can provide a better appreciation for their survival tactics in nature.

Historical and Scientific Background

Carl Linnaeus and Systema Naturae

Carl Linnaeus, a renowned Swedish botanist and zoologist, developed a classification system for organisms known as Systema Naturae. Linnaeus’s system has been influential in the study of taxonomy, providing a foundation for categorizing species. Privet hawk-moths fall under the order Lepidoptera, which includes a diverse range of moths and butterflies.

Key traits of Linnaeus’s taxonomy:

  • Species categorization
  • Hierarchical organization
  • Influential in modern taxonomy

Psilogramma Menephron

Psilogramma Menephron is one example of a privet hawk-moth. These moths are found across various regions and share distinctive features related to their size, shape, and feeding habits. Known for their long proboscis and hovering abilities, Psilogramma Menephron feed on nectar from flowers, similar to hummingbirds.

Features of Psilogramma Menephron:

  • Large, heavy-bodied moths
  • Long, pointed abdomen
  • Hover near flowers for nectar

Comparison table:

Feature Carl Linnaeus Psilogramma Menephron
Field Taxonomy Moth species
Impact Classification system for organisms Example of privet hawk-moth
Key traits Species categorization, hierarchical organization Large and heavy-bodied, long proboscis

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 – Privet Hawk-Moths Mating

 

Hi, we found these bugs in the road, we think they are privit hawks but arent 100% We moved them out of the road because they would have been squashed and are now in our garden. We live in the south of england.
Danny

Hi Danny,
Your identification of the Privet Hawk-Moth, Sphinx ligustri, is correct.

Letter 2 – Gray Privet Hawkmoth

 

really sharp waved sphinx(?) pics with better angle on head
We encountered what I think is a waved sphinx moth in Honolulu Hawaii the other day. I’ve attached a few pictures that are considerably sharper than the ones on your site – might help future people identify – especially the dark markings around the head, which are much more prominent when seen from the side. This was quite an experience for our 5-year old, who discovered it, and learned that it hisses (loudly) when irritated. Love your website! Aloha
David

Hi David,
We disagree with your identification. We believe this to be a Gray Privet Hawkmoth, Psilogramma menephron, which unlike the Waved Sphinx, can be found on the Hawaiian Islands. Check out Bill Oehlke’s site for additional information.

Letter 3 – Privet Hawkmoth from UK

 

Massive Moth: What
Hi Bugman
Spotted this excellent moth dead on my door step this morning (a victim of the cold i think) just wondering if you could shed any light as to the species, im sure it cannot be British seen as im 25 and never seen anything like it and as you can see by my pictures its of a decent size. Please could you tell me where its from if indeed it isnt british Thanks In Advance
Gary Richardson

Hi Gary,
We researched the Sphingidae of the Western Palaearctic, and quickly located the Privet Hawkmoth, Sphinx ligustri. It is found in most of temperate Europe, including England. Most puzzling is the website lists its flight time as April through August. Your specimen is either very early or very late.

Letter 4 – Privet Hawkmoth Caterpillar from the UK

 

unknown bug Location: Bristol, England August 11, 2011 6:47 pm I was riding my bike the other day through the woods and i suddenly seen this bug on the path, so i moved it off the path onto the grass so it didnt get run over by bike riders. i took a picture of it and shown friends and they didnt know what it was either, we was thinking some kind of caterpillar maybe? id really appreciate your help, as i have been looking to find out what this is for some time now. Signature: Ben Vickers

Privet Hawkmoth Caterpillar

Hi Ben, This is a Privet Hawkmoth Caterpillar.  According to the UK Moths website:  “The large caterpillar is even more spectacular than the moth, being bright green with lilac and white stripes along the side, and a curved black ‘horn’ at the rear. It feeds on privet (Ligustrum), lilac (Syringa) and ash (Fraxinus).”

Ed. NOte:  Because of a comment from David Gracer, we have created a Bug Humanitarian Award tag.

Letter 5 – Privet Hawkmoth from Australia

 

Subject: Moth-like crocodile-spider-bat looking creepy big thing
Location: HINTON NSW
December 13, 2015 1:27 am
Hi bug man. Any idea what this is? Discovered in the afternoon at Hinton NSW 12-12-15. Roughly 10 cms long.
Signature: Anthony S

Privet Hawkmoth
Privet Hawkmoth

Dear Anthony,
Thanks to the Butterfly House website, we have identified your Hawkmoth as
Psilogramma casuarinae, but no common name was provided.  We find the site’s description less than flattering for this pretty moth:  “The adult moth has long narrow forewings which are a boring grey colour, with a darker grey wavy pattern. The hindwings are dark grey, each with a pale area containing a wavy black line at the tornus. The abdomen is grey with a dark dorsal line. The wingspan is can be over 10 cms.”  We found the common name Australasian Privet Hawk Moth listed on FlickR and then verified that on the Australian Museum site where it states:  “When disturbed, male Privet Hawk Moths may make a hissing sound by rubbing together a specialised set of scales and spines at the end of the abdomen.”

Letter 6 – Privet Hawkmoth Caterpillar from the UK

 

Subject:  Weird big caterpillar
Geographic location of the bug:  North Norfolk UK
Date: 08/02/2018
Time: 03:05 PM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  Hi,
Just found this bug eating our golden trumpet.
Every once in a while it shakes it’s head side to side.
Never seen anything like this in the UK before
How you want your letter signed:  Nick Bussey

Privet Hawkmoth Caterpillar

Dear Nick,
This is a Hawkmoth Caterpillar in the family Sphingidae, commonly called a Hornworm, and we have identified it as a Privet Hawkmoth Caterpillar,
Sphinx ligustri, thanks to an image on the Wildlife Insight site.  According to UK Moths:  “The large caterpillar is even more spectacular than the moth, being bright green with lilac and white stripes along the side, and a curved black ‘horn’ at the rear. It feeds on privet (Ligustrum), lilac (Syringa) and ash (Fraxinus).”  Neither site mentions golden trumpet as a food plant, but it is not unusual for a caterpillar to adapt to feeding from a different plant host if that plant is introduced as an ornamental plant within the range of the moth.

Hi Daniel,
Thank you for responding to my Email and identifying the caterpillar.
I was rather shocked to see something that large, generally caterpillars (and most other insects) are quite small in this part of the world.
The golden trumpet plants are quite new to the garden (around 10 days), they were purchased from an online plant centre so I suspect it may have already been attached when I took delivery.
I’ve now moved him (the caterpillar) from the garden and placed him on a tasty looking hedge at the front of the house where I hope he’ll be happy.
Thanks again for your information.
Best regards,
Nick.

Hi again Nick,
Relocating a Caterpillar to a plant it does not eat might mean it will starve.  Your individual looks quite mature, and perhaps it will survive by pupating.

Letter 7 – Privet Hawkmoth Caterpillar from Hawaii

 

Subject:  Large horned caterpillar
Geographic location of the bug:  Kealakekua, HI  1650 feet
Date: 01/08/2019
Time: 05:48 PM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  Cat brought this in today and we rescued it.   Pinked spotted hawkmoth?
How you want your letter signed:  Sue

Privet Hawkmoth Caterpillar

Dear Sue,
While this is not a Pink Spotted Hawkmoth Caterpillar, it is a hornworm from a different species in the same family.  We believe this is a pre-pupal Privet Hawkmoth Caterpillar,
Psilogramma menephron, which is pictured on Sphingidae of the Americas where it states:  “This caterpillar is green with a strong curved horn on its tail pointing backwards, and a series of diagonal white stripes on its sides.  The coloration of the Caterpillar looks very striking, but when the Caterpillar is on a Privet bush, the spacing of the stripes is about the same as that of the leaves, and the Caterpillar becomes very hard to see. This use of colour to hide is a form of camouflage called disruptive coloration.  The Caterpillar is most easily located by observing the black fecal pellets under the bush where it is feeding.  When disturbed, the Caterpillar lifts the front of its body, and bends its head underneath, exposing a series of white warts on its shoulders.  It grows to a length of about 90–110mm and has both green and brown forms.”

Thank you so much!    With your info I was able to find out more and wish now I’d killed it as is a newer species here in  Hawaii .
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psilogramma_menephron
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psilogramma_increta
Sincerely, Sue

Update:  January 28, 2019
Daniel, just found another that could be our caterpillar and is an endangered native.   I’ve seen a sphinx moth similar to this a few times so hopefully this is it.    https://dlnr.hawaii.gov/ecosystems/hip/projects/blackburns-sphinx-moth/
Thanks, Sue

Letter 8 – Privet Hawkmoth from England

 

Subject:  Identification wanted
Geographic location of the bug:  Norfolk england
Date: 07/08/2019
Time: 10:43 AM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  Could you please identify this lovely specimen e on my fence
How you want your letter signed:  Christine

Privet Hawkmoth

Dear Christine,
This is a Privet Hawkmoth,
Sphinx ligustri, and according to UK Moths:  “Our largest resident hawk-moth, which is distributed in the southern half of Britain, and has distinctive pink and black barring on the body.  The similarly-striped hindwings are often concealed.  It frequents woodland and suburban habitats, and flies in June and July, with a single generation.” 

Letter 9 – Privet Hawkmoth from the UK

 

Subject:  Very Large Unusual Moth
Geographic location of the bug:  Leicestershire
Date: 05/31/2020
Time: 04:45 PM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  Hi there, I saw this huge moth in the middle of the day, on the pavement outside my house. It was struggling to fly. Any ideas what it is? I’ve never seen anything like it!
How you want your letter signed:  Kerry

Privet Hawkmoth

Dear Kerry,
According to UK Moths, the Privet Hawkmoth is your
largest resident hawk-moth, which is distributed in the southern half of Britain, and has distinctive pink and black barring on the body.  The similarly-striped hindwings are often concealed.  It frequents woodland and suburban habitats, and flies in June and July, with a single generation.”

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.

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5 thoughts on “Privet Hawk Moth Facts: Discover the Intriguing World of this Unique Insect”

  1. Non-Edibility comment:

    Hi Daniel [and Ben],

    Really good of you to go out of your way to assist a fellow living creature.
    Daniel, this kind of thing might even deserve its own tag. You’ve got the whole ‘unnecessary carnage’ thing down, but what about its opposite? “Service to the smaller creatures” variety…
    Thoughts?

    Best,
    Dave

    Reply
    • Hi Dave,
      This is a really nice idea. Several months ago, we featured Anna Carreon of Hawthorne, California with the Insect Humanitarian of the Week Award because she rescued a Long Legged Fly from the birdbath. We have received many accounts of people rescuing drowning creatures from swimming pools and pet bowls, however, it might be difficult to locate them all in our archives. We also received a wonderful letter many years ago from a gentleman who has a Cicada Killer Breeding Program, and that would surely qualify as a Bug Humanitarian Award. Many of our readers raise Monarch Butterfly Caterpillars in captivity and then release them into the wild, including this wonderful letter with a fabulous photo from Dori Eldridge in Naperville, Illinois, and we can try to locate those for Bug Humanitarian Award tagging. Sadly, we will not be able to locate every individual from our archives who has done kind things for Arthropods, but we can at least initiate a new tag. This would even include our readers who deliberately provide habitat for insects in their own gardens by including plants in the landscape that attract butterflies or by encouraging beetles and other predators so that their gardens can be pesticide free. Thanks again for a fine idea.

      Reply
  2. Great record. It is indeed unusual to find this species’ caterpillar on a Bignoniacea! This is the first known case I suppose… In the New World, however, some closely related Sphinx-species are found on both Oleaceae and Bignoniaceae, as eg. Sphinx leucopheata from Mexico.

    Great wishes
    Bostjan

    Reply
  3. Great record. It is indeed unusual to find this species’ caterpillar on a Bignoniacea! This is the first known case I suppose… In the New World, however, some closely related Sphinx-species are found on both Oleaceae and Bignoniaceae, as eg. Sphinx leucopheata from Mexico.

    Great wishes
    Bostjan

    Reply

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