Wild Side Column: Beautiful fast flyers
Ruby-throated hummingbirds are fun to watch. Males perform loud U-shaped buzzing display flights and battle others for access to feeders. Many hummers come to visit the feeders and wild columbine flowers in front of our windows. Occasionally we see what looks like a small hummingbird zipping among the flowers, hovering and sometimes landing like a hummingbird to drink nectar.
Those fast flyers aren't baby hummingbirds. Hummingbird young are nearly adult-sized when they fledge. The zippy small flower visitors are Sphinx moths in the Sphingidae family. Often called "hummingbird moths" or "hawk moths," Sphinx moths are large day-flying moths. They have large eyes and a long tongue that can reach into tubular flowers to drink nectar. They are fast flyers, reaching up to 35 miles per hour.
Sphinx moth larvae feed on plant leaves and often have a "horn" on the rear end, like the tomato hornworms that can be found in gardens. That big smooth green caterpillar with black-yellow-red dots and a yellow "horn" is the larva of the white-lined sphinx moth. They are beautiful big moths with a 4-inch wingspan, prominent white stripes on their upper wings and pink underwings.
Stars of the Sphinx moth family in my book are the smaller clear-wing moths. They have a wingspan of about 2 inches with transparent "windows" on their wings where there are no color scales. They have shaggy hairs on their bodies and patches of yellow that resemble a large bumblebee. The shaggy hairs off the end of their abdomen resemble a crayfish tail. A Hummingbird clear-wing moth, Hemaris thysbe, was zipping around a flowering mock orange shrub near our house last weekend. It was drinking nectar from the fragrant flowers along with some black swallowtail and red-spotted purple butterflies.
I went out with a camera to get a photo. The butterflies are easy targets. They remained stationary on individual flowers for up to a minute, drinking their fill of nectar.
The clear-wing moths are harder to photograph. They are fast, zipping quickly between flowers, sticking in their long tongues and feeding only for a few seconds. I remember trying to catch them for my insect collection when I was a boy. They are really hard to catch, even with a butterfly net.
Sphinx moths are fascinating insects. In addition to being interesting to observe, they are good examples of pollinators that aren't bees. Their ability to hover and their long tongue/proboscis has enabled them to form special relationships with the plants that they pollinate.
Now that summer is here, we will be seeing more Sphinx moths buzzing around flowers. Enjoy the show.
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