The Elusive Hummingbird Moth

The Elusive Hummingbird Moth

We have an old honeysuckle bush in our front yard twisting up a pipe 10 feet into the air. Planted by the previous owners, the orange-red flowers spreading out five feet around attract hummingbirds to their trumpet-shaped flowers. On sunny, warm days they move between the honeysuckle and our hummingbird feeder as if testing both food source to decide which they prefer.

On more than one occasion I have seen the seen the elusive and beautiful hummingbird moth visiting the honeysuckle and was reminded of this by my colleague, Nick Velles, when he asked me if I had ever seen one. I did a bit of research and here’s what I found about this unique moth.

There are several species of hummingbird moths found in North America, Europe, Asia and Africa. They have the unique ability to fly like a hummingbird with an audible hum sound, suspended in air to feed on nectar from various flowering plants. They don’t have a beak like a hummingbird, but their long tongue, or proboscis, rolls out of a coiled tube to insert into elongated tube-shaped flowers to feed. The tongue is huge, about double the length of its body. Unlike most moths they are daytime fliers.

Hummingbird moths are about 2.5 inches long, plump, with the tip of their tale opening into a fan. They are covered in grayish hair that look like feathers with white, rust, or reddish-brown markings. Depending on the species their wingspan can be two to six inches, and most hummingbird moth species have scales on their wings. They can beat their wings up to 70 beats per second and fly up to 12 miles per hour!

Species without scales on their wings include the two most common in North America, the showberry clearwing hummingbird moth (Hemaris diffinis) and the clearwing hummingbird moth (Hemaris thysbe). The clearwing hummingbird moth is the most common of these two species in the east with the showberry clearwing mostly in the western states.

The best time to see these special moths is in the summer when their favorite flowers and food source are in bloom. These include bee balm, honeysuckle, phlox or verbena. It is the hummingbird clearwing that I see feeding on the honeysuckle in my yard. I have also seen them on our phlox and bee balm.

The female hummingbird moth uses aroma or pheromone to attract the male. After mating she’ll lay tiny round green eggs on the underside of leaves that are the favored food plants of the larva. The caterpillars are large, green and have a horn on their rear end to ward off predators. When fully grown they drop to the ground to spin a cocoon and pupate in the leaf litter. In the colder climates, such as ours, the pupa spend the winter in the leaf litter to emerge in the spring. In warmer climates their can be more than one generation each summer.

Hummingbird moths are a member of the sphinx moth family. One of its relatives, the five-spotted hawkmoth (Manduca quinquemaculata), is loathed by gardeners when in its larva stage as the dreaded tomato hornworm caterpillar. Plants in the nightshade family (Solanaceae), including tomato, potato and tobacco, are the favored food source for this caterpillar. I have found them on my tomato plants, and if left to their own devices can strip a tomato plant of leaves.

I hope you’re lucky enough to witness the amazing hummingbird moth. If you have their preferred nectar source of honeysuckle, bee balm, phlox or verbena blooming in your yard, you will increase the chances of seeing them. If you have tomato plants, you might even catch glimpse of the hungry hornworm. Nature never ceases to amaze me, and hummingbird moths are yet another example of her artistry and beauty.

We live in a special place called The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. Our region is rich in cultural and natural resources and home to amazing creatures like the hummingbird moth. I hope you’ll join me so together we can care for it, enjoy it, and pass it on.

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He can be reached at 860-774-3300 or bill@tlgv.org

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