Commonly found in North America, Africa, Europe and Asia, hummingbird moths hover, buzz, and fly from one flower to another just like a hummingbird. Though it has ‘bird’ in its name, it’s basically an insect. In this writeup, we’ll learn a lot more such facts about the hummingbird moth, such as its similarities with its namesake bird, species, lifecycle, and feeding.
A hummingbird moth is plump, with the tip of its tail opening into something fan-like. Its body is usually shaped like a barrel, with long, hollow mouth parts and long wings being the most noticeable features. The insect could be anywhere between 2 and 2.5 inches in length. It has six legs and is an inch or two smaller than hummingbird. Though the moth’s legs are long and visible, its feet are quite tiny and cannot be seen during flight. The moth has a couple of antennae popping from its head; hummingbirds usually don’t have such antennae.
A hummingbird moth is usually reddish brown in color. Its gray hair cover looks like feathers, with rust, brown or white variations or markings. The big, menacing eyes help keep predators at bay. And since the creature looks more like a bird and less like an insect, predators don’t approach the moth like any other insect. Like most insects, a hummingbird moth has a fairly long tongue that stay rolled below its chin when not feeding. Hummingbird moth’s tongue, when stretched, is two times the length of its body.
Also, a hummingbird moth has forewings along with two smaller wings positioned in its front. Its wingspan falls in the two to six inches range, which could vary between different species. The wings may have scales. Some hummingbird moth species could lose the scales in patches and get eventually referred to as clearwing hummingbird moths.
Not all hummingbird moth species have clear wings. For instance, the species found in other parts of the world, such as the hemaris croatica or olive bee hawkmoth found in Europe, and hemaris rubra or Kashmir bee hawkmoth found in India do not sport clear wings.
Similarities with Hummingbird, the Bird
A hummingbird moth looks like a hummingbird to the T, despite not being the same species as the bird. The reason for this striking resemblance is ‘convergent evolution’. The evolution is basically a phenomenon in which two different species with unique lineages end up having similar physical traits, even though they evolved independently.
Thanks to convergent evolution, the moth can feed itself while hovering over flowers, just like a hummingbird. And it can remain suspended mid-air as long as it wants to or until it’s done with the feeding. The moth also moves backwards and sideways just like the bird. People who are not familiar with a hummingbird moth usually mistake the insect for a smaller-size hummingbird.
The humming sound that the insect makes comes from its hovering or the rapid wing movements it makes. This not just makes the insect look and act like a hummingbird but also sound like one. These moths prefer to feed on the same kinds of flowers hummingbirds feed on. They relish verbenas, butterfly bush, red valerian, cardinals, salvia, etc.
Hummingbird Moth Types
Hummingbird moth is basically the name commonly used to refer to different hummingbird moth species. The various types include hummingbird hawk-moth, white-lined sphinx, five-spotted hawkmoth, and sphinx moth, to name a few. These types are closely connected and pretty much are from the same genus.
As mentioned earlier, these moths can be found in different parts of the world. You may not find all the hummingbird moth types in a particular region. Also, in certain places, the same species type could be called by another name. In Britain, for instance, hummingbird moths are called bee hawk-moths.
In North America, there are basically four hummingbird moth species. Snowberry clearwings and hummingbird clearwings are quite common. Snowberry clearwings are a lot more common in the west. The other two types are Rocky Mountain clearwings and slender clearwings. North America is also home to white-lined sphinx moths. Snowberry clearwing species takes inspiration for its name from snowberry plants that the hummingbird moth caterpillar feeds on.
In Europe, genus hemaris moths are commonly referred to as bee hawk-moths. Europe is home to three hummingbird moth species. Macroglossum stellatarum or hummingbird hawk-moth found in Africa, Europe and Asia doesn’t belong to the hemaris genus family, despite it being part of the sphinx moth clan.
The colors of a hummingbird moth also vary with species. Common colors are olive green, yellow and rusty reddish brown. The hues on the insect’s underside and back are usually not the same. Also, several hummingbird moths have some body markings or the other, such as horizontal bands.
Snowberry clearwings’ colors may vary between them. However, the thorax is predominantly olive-gold or gold, and the stomach black with a couple or one gold/yellow segments at the end. This gold/black color scheme means the species could be easily confused with a bumblebee. The snowberry clearwing and hummingbird clearwing can be easily distinguished courtesy the black stripe that stretches from the head of the snowberry clearwing and extends to its entire body.
Unlike most sphinx moths that fly during night, hummingbird moths venture out during the day. Hummingbird moths are generally quite agile at flying. They can hover in a particular spot and also fly sideways and backwards. The hummingbird moth can fly at a pace of 12mph, which is extremely quick for an insect of any kind.
These moths could be found in different kinds of habitats, which include open meadows, suburban gardens, and forest edges. They can be seen flying individually or in groups. If you hear these moths in your garden, there invariably would be a bunch of them.
If hummingbird moths like a place, they tend to frequent that spot almost every day, provided the weather conditions are ideal. This is unlike hummingbirds that usually don’t follow a schedule. If you have a garden that attracts hummingbird moths, you would be able to notice that the moths visit your garden the same period every day. Also, they can be very easily photographed since they don’t care how close you get to them.
Adult hummingbird moths could start flying during early spring, the time when bluebells are not done with their blooming. However, these moths are a lot more active during summers and your chances of catching a glimpse of them are quite high during this period. If you have beebalm, phlox, verbena, or honeysuckle in your garden, the possibilities of these wonderful moths visiting your place are strong.
When it’s time to eat, the insect sticks out a curled, long proboscis from its mouth. This is unlike the bird that uses its beak for the purpose. The moth feeds on nectar usually during daytime. At dusk, you may see the insect feeding on night blooming jasmine or the evening primrose. When the moth is still a baby or a caterpillar, it consumes bedstraw plants.
Like most butterflies and moths, mature hummingbird moths source nectar from different flowers. However, their larvae require specific food plant types, such as different species of dogbane, honeysuckle, or some rose family members such as cherries, hawthorn and plums.
Like all moths, a hummingbird moth’s lifecycle can be divided into four parts: egg, caterpillar, cocoon, and the adult moth. For the transitions to happen smoothly or the reproduction to take place correctly, the moth needs certain plants. Generally, viburnum, dwarf honeysuckle and coralberry are considered ideal host plants. If you add these plant species to your garden, you are quite likely to attract these moths to your place, provided there are hummingbird moths in your vicinity already.
Female hummingbird moths entice their opposite gender with pheromone or an aroma that they make from their glands situated at their abdomen tips. Post mating, the tiny, green, round eggs are laid on their larval food flora, typically on the leaves’ underside. The caterpillars’ rear end horns are green, which camouflage well with the leaves. These hummingbird moth caterpillars shouldn’t be confused with tobacco hornworm, tomato hornworm or any other plant-damaging hornworm.
When the caterpillars are grown fully, they fall to the ground, partially protected by leaf litter that some gardeners despise. In northern regions, there is just one generation (April to August) every year since the season is short-lived. The caterpillar spends the entire winter hidden, with the adult not showing up until spring. In the south, you would come across multiple generations of these moths every summer. August to October and March to June are usually the opportune periods.
Unlike hummingbirds, which live for at least two years and up to five years, hummingbird moths live only a few weeks. Its four-phase lifecycle may seem like fairly long and laborious, but the metamorphoses happen at a fairly quick pace.
Though hummingbird moths are not found everywhere, they are not endangered. In their dwelling regions, they are usually found in the bunches. However, certain hummingbird moth species could be declining in certain regions. For instance, slender clearwings found in Connecticut are considered threatened.
Alyssa McDuff received a Masters Degree in biology from The University of California. Alyssa has been working as a full-time biologist for the past 4 years. In her spare time, Alyssa writes for several publications including National Geographic and Hummingbird World.