Hummingbird Moths aka Sphinx Moth, Hawkmoth or Hornworm

by Sandy Swegel

When we think of pollinators, we think of bees and butterflies, but one of the larger groups of pollinators are moths.  They go from flower to flower looking for nectar and their hairy faces and bodies pick up lots of pollen that get taken to the next flower.  Most people think about moths just when they notice the moths flitting around the porch light at night, but gardeners see moths all the time without even realizing it.  The little white “butterflies” around our veggie garden are cabbage moths.

One of the most intriguing moths in the garden is the Sphinx moth or hummingbird moth.  It hovers especially over flowers, especially at dawn or dusk, looking for super sweet nectar. Most people think it’s a hummingbird the first time they see one.

Unique Facts

They are the only moth that “hovers” over flowers like hummingbirds do, fluttering their wings rapidly while they “drink” nectar.  This is why they are called “hummingbird moths.”

They can fly very fast, up to 30 miles per hour. They can also fly swooping down as hawks do. This is why they are called “hawkmoths.”

They are big. Their front wingspan can be eight inches and their proboscis (for feeding) can be 10 inches.

They are more active at night but you can see them during the daytime too, especially around twilight.

They find their flowers from a distance by their scent.  They love sweet-smelling flowers.  Once close up, the use their vision to find white or light colored flowers. They often feed on the same flowers by night that the hummingbirds use during the day.

The weirdest thing about the hummingbird moths is that their larval form is a hornworm. Gardeners see them most often as the dreaded tomato hornworm.

They get their name The Sphinx moth because the larvae will raise the front portion of their body up when you disturb them, causing it to resemble the Egyptian Sphinx.

Flowers that are Pollinated by Hawkmoths:

Evening Primrose
Moonflower
Azaleas
Four O’Clocks
Peonies
Bee balm
Honeysuckle

These amazing hawk-sphinx-hummingbird moths are so useful in the garden, that now I have to let some of the tomato hornworms live just so I can have more moths around. Yikes.

Extension Fact Sheet about Hawkmoths

How to Start Mothing

Pollinator of Month

Slow Motion Video of Hawkmoth

How to Rear Sphinx Moths

 

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