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What's That Buzzing Around? Hummingbird or Moth?

Updated: Jul 28, 2020

If you are a hummingbird lover, you’re going to love the clearwing sphinx moths too. These critters look like a hummingbird, sound like a hummingbird and feed like a hummingbird, but they are actually moths!

A clearwing hummingbird moth. (Photo via Shutterstock)

From April to August, keep your eyes peeled for clearwing sphinx moths. We have two species in our area: the hummingbird clearwing (Hemaris thysbe) and snowberry clearwing (Hemaris diffinis). Both could fool you at quick glance, thinking they are hummingbirds instead of moths. With closer observation, you will be able to spot the difference.

Adaptations of both worlds

Moths are usually masters of the night, but these hummingbird moths brave the daylight using their bird-like mimicry to protect them from predators. Like their moth relatives, they still have six legs and two antennas, but they can be small and hidden as they zip from flower to flower.

Instead of beaks like hummingbirds, the clearwing moths have long tongues that curl up under their chins. This tongue is called a proboscis, and it is a common feature among moths and butterflies. Their powerful wings flap in a figure-eight pattern, just like hummingbirds, allowing backwards and sideways flight. Missing scales on the wings make them clear, and they turn nearly invisible while hovering. Plus, all this wing movement makes a humming noise!

Growing up

Like any moth or butterfly, these hummingbird moths start as caterpillars. Eggs can be found on the backside of leaves on host plants such as hawthorns, cherries, plums, honeysuckles, snowberries and dogbane. As the caterpillar eats and grows, it eventually crawls down to the ground and creates a cocoon in leaf litter. This is why it is great to leave a little leaf litter behind in your yards and gardens. The cocoons can then stay there all winter long, and the moths will finally emerge in the spring.

Attracting these beauties

Hummingbird moths are fantastic pollinators. They are hard workers, active throughout day, but they also can keep pollinating later in the evening hours. Planting native plants like wild bergamot, ironweed, blue phlox and Virginia bluebells will make these moths happy to visit your own back yard. Plus, to provide habitat for the whole life cycle, try planting a few of the previously mentioned hawthorns, cherries and plums.

Time to celebrate

National Moth Week is the week of July 18 to 26. It is a worldwide celebration encouraging the public to become citizen scientists and record moth sightings in your local communities.


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