It’s a hummingbird! It’s a bumblebee! It’s a… moth? If you think you’re seeing unusual-looking baby hummingbirds or giant bumblebees buzzing quickly about your garden… sadly, you’re probably not. A hummingbird must be fully grown before it leaves the nest and “fast” is not in a bumblebee’s repertoire. Which means you are probably seeing a Hummingbird Moth.
Hummingbird versus Hummingbird Moth
Also known as Hawk, Clearwing, or Sphinx Moths (in the family Sphingidae), lots of people mistake these little insects for actual birds. Here’s why.
- Flight: In a perfect example of convergent evolution, the hummingbird moth, like its namesake, has developed the ability to beat its wings almost as fast as a hummingbird at 70 beats per second and hover above flowers while searching out nectar. It can also fly up to 12 miles per hour, which is decidedly slower than a hummingbird, but still noticeably fast in a backyard.
- Size: From a distance, the little moth can appear to be about the same size as a hummingbird, with a wingspan upwards of 6 inches in some species, though 2-4.5 inches is more common.
- Feeding: The moth feeds by extending a dark, rolled-up proboscis that can look very much like the long, thin bill of a hummingbird. Like many birds, but unlike most moths, some species of hummingbird moth are diurnal, meaning you’re likely to see it feeding during the day, particularly at dawn and dusk.
- Appearance: Some moths have an abdominal appendage that, when extended, can resemble the flared tail of a hummingbird. Greenish hairs on the back can even look like the feathers of a Ruby-throated hummingbird.
- Sound: An audible humming sound can be heard when the moth zips past, making it easy to mistake for a hummingbird.
- Flower Preference: Likewise, the adult moth seeks out nectar from many of the same plants that entice hummingbirds like bee balm, phlox, honeysuckle, and verbena.
Start your own hummingbird moth garden with some Pink Pinstripe Phlox seeds.
Or non-GMO Panorama Mixed Bee Balm seeds.
But that’s where the similarities end. If you’re lucky enough to observe a hummingbird moth up close, here are some things to look for that set it apart from the birds.
- Color: The hummingbird moth is reddish-brown in color, while many hummingbirds have jewel-toned, iridescent feathers.
- Shape: The moth is stouter and rounder than the sleek hummingbird. The body is usually only 1-2 inches long, compared to 3-4 inches for a hummingbird.
- Range: Hummingbird moths can be found in many parts of the world, while hummingbirds only live in the Western Hemisphere.
- Features: Like all Lepidoptera, the moth has tell-tale antennae and a tongue that coils like a party noisemaker, which is a sure sign it’s related to a butterfly, not a bird.
- Wings: Unlike its avian friends, the moth’s wings are transparent and featherless.
Hawk Moths In Popular Culture
There are more than 100 species of Sphingidae in North America, but many more live across Europe and Asia. They can be found from Portugal in the west, all the way to Japan in the east. The British refer to their version of the hummingbird moth as a Bee Hawk Moth.
One of the more interesting of the bunch is the Death’s-Head Hawk Moth that has a vaguely human skull-like marking on its thorax. Depictions of the moth are commonly featured in artwork with supernatural or magical motifs. Even the insect’s genus name, Acherontia, is derived from Acheron, one of the five rivers of the Greek underworld. Superstitions surrounding this moth go back at least as far as the 19th century, meriting a mention in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and a poem by Edgar Allan Poe. An entomologist of the time even noted peoples’ irrational fear of the loud squeak the moth produces when annoyed. Today, many folks just like the way it looks and can wear a picture of it or hang its likeness on the wall.
In comparison, the Old World Hummingbird Hawk Moth is considered a lucky omen. A swarm of them was observed flying across the English Channel on D-Day during World War II.
As entertaining and harmless as it is as an adult, many vegetable gardeners can mistake the larval stage of the hummingbird moth for the related –and much despised– Five-Spotted Hawk Moth and Carolina Sphinx Moth. Known as Tomato and Tobacco Hornworms, respectively, they make quick work of crops like tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, and peppers, chowing down on the foliage and leaving bare stems in their wake.
Like its maligned cousins, the caterpillar of the hummingbird moth also has a “horn” at the rear end with a diagonal slash-pattern on its sides, and is a perfectly camouflaged green (though some species can be brown or gray). Unlike the hornworms, however, the hummingbird moth larva feeds instead on plants favored for egg-laying by its mother: honeysuckle, dogbane, snowberry, viburnum, hawthorn, cherry, and plum. After its had its fill, the caterpillar drops to the ground to pupate in the leaf litter. In northern climates, the larva will spend the entire winter there, finally emerging in spring. The adult will produce two to four broods in a season.
If you want to know more about these interesting little moths, there are several books you can try, like Butterflies and Moths from St. Martin’s Press.
You can also get to know the caterpillars in the Peterson Field Guide to Caterpillars of North America.
And the kids might like this picture book: Hummingbird Hawk-Moth Do Your Kids Know This?