Thursday, September 12, 2013

Hummingbird Moths Worth a Closer Look by Elaine Lockey

photo by Elaine Lockey
While eating dinner recently on a restaurant’s outdoor patio, I noticed something flying around the potted plants.  My first thought was “hummingbird” but something didn’t seem quite right.  On further inspection, it turned out to be an insect resembling a hummingbird.  It wasn’t long before it attracted the attention of many of the other diners. 

This strange insect that acts like a hummingbird is commonly called a “hummingbird moth”.  Sphinx moths and hawk moths are the common name for many of the hornworms, but there are several different species that can also be called hummingbird moths, because of the similar type of flight pattern with fast wing beats, hovering behavior and similar size heavy body.  They fly around deep-lobed flowers, and so are commonly seen around your flowers.  

 Hyles lineata caterpillar photo courtesy of
The beautiful Whitelined sphinx, Hyles lineata, is most commonly called the hummingbird moth. You will also come across the Smerinthus jamaicensis or Twinspot sphinx with pink coloration, among others. Hummingbird moths are in the Sphingidae or Hornworm family which has over 30 species in Colorado, including the infamous Tomato and Tobacco Hornworms.  However, most Hornworms do not cause significant plant damage.  

It’s helpful to recognize the differences in appearance of the hornworms so you don’t unknowingly destroy the wrong species of hornworm.  A handy Extension factsheet is available to help with identification of some of the more common species you might come across, including the destructive ones.   Adult moths will feed on the nectar of many different flowers by using their proboscis, a long thin needle-like mouthpart, like a tongue. Like butterflies, the proboscis stays coiled up until the moth approaches a flower then it uncoils and is inserted into the flower. It is really impressive to watch how much control these insects have over this apparatus, inserting it into the smallest of flower parts with precision.  

It is strange to see a moth out during the middle of a sunny day.  These moths are active during the day, dusk, dawn and also in the rain.  They like a variety of open habitats including gardens, deserts, and meadows.  They will often travel with other moths and are not as wary as hummingbirds so you can usually snap a few photos quite close up. If you come across one of these exotic moths, be sure to point it out to anyone within range.  This amazing insect will impress even your most insect-phobic friends.