One of my favorite activities in the garden is picking flowers, arranging them, and bringing them indoors to enjoy. Immersed in flowers, gathering the components for my bouquet, I transport into the world of the pollinator. As a result, I can get up close and personal with these amazing creatures as they flit from bloom to bloom, carrying out one of nature’s most essential tasks. They are fascinating to watch, and as a gardener, I consider it both a privilege and a responsibility to provide them with ample habitat to thrive. Recently, while among a patch of bee balm (Monarda), I had an exciting pollinator sighting that I will not soon forget. Zooming to and fro with the acrobatics of an Olympic gymnast was a hummingbird clearwing moth.
These moths are often mistaken for hummingbirds (hence the name), as they have evolved to display similar traits. This evolutionary phenomenon, called convergent evolution, is the key to the hummingbird moth’s survival. By mimicking hummingbirds, they have a better chance of fooling predators and ensuring the survival of their species. Unlike most moth species, hummingbird moths are diurnal, foraging for nectar in the daylight hours. Like hummingbirds, these moths can beat their wings very rapidly, up to 70 beats per second depending on the species, which allows them to fly up to 12 mph. The rapid wing beats create a buzzing or humming sound, just like in hummingbirds. However, unlike the hummingbird, hummingbird moths do not have a beak but rather a long tongue-like proboscis that unfurls to sip nectar deep inside flowers. They are fascinating insects!
Hummingbird moths are widespread in North America and found in Europe, Asia, and Africa. The most common species in our area are the hummingbird clearwing (Hemaris thysbe) and the snowberry clearwing (Hemaris diffinis), which their coloration can distinguish. The hummingbird clearwing is olive and reddish-brown, while the snowberry clearwing is yellow and black. I have been lucky enough to have encountered both species in my garden over the years.
These moths enjoy feeding on the nectar of various flowers, including honeysuckle, bee balm, phlox, blueberry, cherries, viburnums, and thistles. Their long, tubular tongues make sipping nectar from these long-necked blossoms a breeze. While they fill their bellies with nectar, they pollinate the flowers. It’s a win-win for both moth and plant!
While the moths themselves are beneficial to plants, the caterpillar stage of some of these species can cause problems in the garden. For example, the dreaded tomato or tobacco hornworm will morph into a Sphinx or Hawk-moth, another hummingbird moth species. Regardless, I can’t help but be mesmerized by these creatures whenever I spot them in the garden. They are an evolutionary marvel, and on the rare occasion that I catch a glimpse of them, I am in awe. I consider the experience a special treat. Of all the pollinators I’ve spotted in my garden, the hummingbird moth is a real humdinger.
Sources: U.S. Forest Service, Farmers’ Almanac, Hummingbirds Plus