There exists a type of moth that flies in the daylight and is delightful to behold. "Hummingbird moths" have been a fascination of mine most of my life and a true quest in the last 5 years.
These little creatures… well not so little, wing span is about 2 inches, hover and drink nectar from flowers. Unlike most moths, they do NOT land on the flower. Their wings are transparent so the illusion of the rapidly beating wings of a hummingbird is enhanced.
My fascination with Hummingbird moths started as a child. My Aunt Laura had a stand of Tiger Lily and a large patch of Phlox. They swarmed with Hummingbird moths during the spring and summer time when I would visit. The transparent wings that appear to be beating so fast are deceptive and these little guys are not impossibly fast. I used to catch them in my cupped hands, hold them briefly and release them. I firmly believed that I was catching baby hummingbirds. This belief was encouraged by Aunt Laura, whom I’m now certain actually knew better and was just keeping me busy and out of trouble. She always said to be sure to be gentle and to release them right away.
Fast forward 30 + years …. I was at the local garden center when I spotted a baby hummingbird! I was delighted and slowly approached it. Then I noticed the feathery antennae…wait; hummingbirds don’t have antennae! But this looked just like the baby hummingbirds I used to play with. Home to the internet. There were only two things I was sure of. It looked like a hummingbird and it was a moth. So I used those 2 terms in a Google search and up came many hits. My main reference was “The Moths of North America” webpage. I also communicated by email with several authors.
These little cuties are sphinx or hawk moths (Lepidoptera: Sphingidae). There are 4 similar species listed on the site although the author acknowledges there may be more. The term "hummingbird moth" is a sort of catch all.
The Hummingbird clearwing (Hemaris thysbe), Snowberry clearwing (Hemaris diffinis) and the Slender clearwing (Hemaris gracilis) all have ranges that include the US Atlantic coastal states (my area). One of these may be what I have seen here and/or grew up loving. The 3 types look very similar in the photos.
One other similar species, the Rocky Mountain clearwing (Hemaris senta) does not live on the Atlantic coast so it was out of the running.
I’m happy to say that after several years of concerted efforts at planting a variety of larval food plants for caterpillars and nectar producing food plants for the butterflies I now have my own little population of “baby hummingbirds” as well.
I’ve read many other articles and communicated via email with several authors over the intervening years. Apparently this mistaken identity thing is common. Lots of people think these moths are hummingbirds and it is very hard to tell the various moth species apart.
UPDATE August 20, 2003 Following doyle’s example I saw a hawkmoth seeming dead in a cool shadowy area of my yard today. First time I’ve ever seen one holding still. I picked it up and put in on a phlox blossom in the sun. Lo and behold the wings started quivering then vibrating and in less than a minute it flew off. No nectar intake either, must have just been cold but it sure did look dead.
UPDATE May 4, 2003 Today as I was stringing a trellis for my sugar snap peas I was privileged with a visit from a Snowberry Clearwing, or at least I think that's what it was. It was smaller than a Hummingbird clearwing moth but hovered over the lilac bloom in the typical Hawk moth way. The beat of its little wings was strong enough to cause bits of dirt to stir. It seemed to hand around and keep me company for a time this afternoon ... sweet little thing. Looked like a honeybee.
UPDATE August 16, 2004 This month's issue of the magazine "Birds and Blooms" features hummingbird moths.
Lometa send me this URL for a video clip of a Hawk Moth gathering nectar at what looks to be a phlox flower head. The video must be slowed down, in real life their wings beat so fast they appear to be standing still. QUITE amazing.
UPDATE September 30, 2005 Lately I've been reading a lot of old gardening books. My current one is An Island Garden by Chelia Thaxter, Copyright, 1894, by HOUGHTON, MIFFLIN & CO.
and from it I bring you:
One morning lately, as I was busy in the garden, a little creature brushed by me so close I thought it was a bee; turning to look at it, I was sure it was a humming-bird, but such an atom! Its like I had never imagined. I watched it, fascinated, as it flew here, there, and everywhere, whirring just like a humming-bird, crazy over the annual Larkspurs. A greenish golden sheen was reflected from the head and back, the very color of the little bird, and it had a small, short tail, with a band of white round its body, which seemed feathered, as also its mottled breast. Its bright black eyes were like the bird's, and it hummed with its wings in precisely the same way. Its beak was short, and as it went from flower to flower, probing for honey, I was perfectly sure it was a new variety of humming-bird, the most minute that was ever created. I watched it with breathless interest, completely puzzled by it. Perfectly tame, it flew all about me and investigated the flowers in my hand. Suddenly I discovered that it had three pairs of legs! No bird, I said, ever had more than one, and then I was satisfied that it must be the most marvelous moth in the world. It was so happy and beautiful, flying about so confidingly in the bright sunshine within reach of my hand! But I knew of some one to whom it would be a treasure, so I threw a light veil over, caught it, and sent it softly to sleep forever with some chloroform. It was Ællopos Titan, very rare, and found in the tropics.
My Main Source was The Moths of North America website:
Ferguson, Douglas C., Chuck E. Harp, Paul A. Opler, Richard S. Peigler, Michael Pogue, Jerry A. Powell, and Michael J. Smith. 1999. Moths of North America. Jamestown, ND: Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Home Page. http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/distr/lepid/moths/mothsusa.htm
This huge site lists the species I’ve discussed, their ranges, the food plants they use and has photos.
discusses the hornworm caterpillars
is an article within the site listed above in the question and answer section on the mistaken identity issue.
These 6 pages show photos of the 4 species discussed.