Thursday, August 16, 2007

Hummingbird Moths In The Garden

One of many joys of the summer is the appearance of Hummingbird Moths at our flowers and butterfly bushes. You may have noticed that your flowers attract what looks like a hummingbird with antennae. These are commonly called Hummingbird Moths and unlike most moths that fly only at night, you will see them feeding on nectar from your flowers during the day. Hummingbird Moths live in fields, gardens, and forest edges and can be seen in our area in central Virginia from around April into October.

The most delightful thing about them is that they don't seem to mind you hovering over them as they hover over the flowers. They don't hover long since they move around the bushes and amongst the flowers fast enough to make most of the photos I've taken of them a mere blur.

Hummingbird Moths grow up to two inches long and are green, brown and shades of red. Tufts of hairs from the end of the abdomen look a lot like feathers. The wings of this moth are mostly clear, sometimes with some red near the body, explaining why they are also known as Clearwing Moths, losing the colored scales on their front wings after their first flight.

Their wings resemble leaded stained glass with clear glass in the panels, much like a bee or wasp wing.

After mating, female moths lay eggs on host plants that will feed the caterpillars when they hatch, such as honeysuckle, hawthorns, plum, wild cherry and viburnum. The caterpillars are yellowish-green with darker green lines and reddish spots on the sides. They also have a yellow tail horn.

Within the various species of these moths, you will find the Tomato and Tobacco Hornworms being the caterpillar stage for Sphinx Moths. Hornworms will not hurt you if you handle them since the tails can't pierce your skin or sting you. When a hornworm is alarmed he will tuck in his tiny head and expose his big white teeth that are really harmless suction cups. This makes him intimidating at both ends to predators!

When caterpillars are fully grown, they climb down the host plant and into the soil where they make a coccoon and become a pupa (resting stage). If it's not too late in the summer, the adult moths will hatch in a few weeks. If it is in the Fall, the moths won't come out until the following Spring.

Adult Hummingbird Moths feed on nectar from many flowers, just like hummingbirds. Some of their favorites in our yard are Highbush Blueberry, Blackberries, Buddleia (Butterfly Bush), Bee Balm, Milkweed and Phlox.

They use a long, thin, needle-like mouthpart called a proboscis to eat. The proboscis stays coiled up like a garden hose until the moth approaches a flower. It then uncoils it and dips it deep into the flower for nectar as seen in the photo. The nectar is rich in sugar, which fuels the energy required for hovering.

Predators of Hummingbird Moths include birds, mantids (i.e. praying mantis), spiders, and bats, but camouflage is a great defense in avoiding detection by a hungry predator, and looking like a hummingbird works well for them.

Another moth considered to be in the Hummingbird Moth family is the Carolina Sphinx Moth which comes from the Tobacco Hornworm. This hornworm is green or brown with seven diagonal white lines on each side, and a horn arching downward at the end of the abdomen. This horn is commonly, but not always red. It can also be yellow, white, green, orange or the palest blue or. This caterpillar feeds on plants in the nightshade family which includes tomatoes and tobacco.

Adults may feed at flowers such as Moonflower, Morning Glory, and Honeysuckle. In our yard we've seen them mostly on Petunias and Cleomes (Spider Flower), which is the flower this night visitor is feasting on in the last photo.

It's easy to see why people mistake them for hummingbirds from a distance.  They hover and drink nectar in the same way as you can see in this video below of a Hummingbird Clearwing Moth that's feeding on phlox on our deck garden.

Hummingbird Clearwing Moth  7-2-10

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The photo(s) and article are copyrighted. You may use either of them if you include the following credit and active link back to this website: © 2010 Donna L. Watkins - This article was reprinted with permission from TheNatureInUs.com. The link to use is: www.TheNatureInUs.com.

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