Hummingbird Moth (Clearwing Moth)
At first sight, it’s easy to mistake a hummingbird moth for a tiny hummingbird. It feeds on the nectar of flowers, hovering with the body stationary, its transparent wings beating so fast as to be nearly invisible, and a long proboscis protruding beaklike into the blossom. In flight, the wings create a soft buzzing, also like a hummingbird.
Hummingbird moths are members of the sphinx moth family (Sphingidae), which have heavy bodies and long front wings. The wings of hummingbird moths are clear, with a black or brown border, and are nearly invisible when they fly. Males have a flared “tail” like that of a hovering hummingbird.
One obvious difference between the birds and the moths is size. The ruby-throated hummingbird can be 3” long. Hummingbird moths are much smaller at 1-1/2” long.
There are two species that you are more likely to see in Massachusetts:
- The hummingbird clearwing (Hemaris thysbe) is by far the most commonly seen. It has an olive back, a red-brown abdomen, and pale legs.
- The snowberry clearwing (Hemaris diffinis) is usually yellow and black, with black legs. It also has a black line running through its eyes and down its sides.
While most sphinx moths fly at night, hummingbird moths fly during the day. They can be found in a wide variety of habitats, including open meadows, forest edges, and suburban gardens. They feed on flower nectar, dipping in a long thin proboscis.
Hummingbird moths lay their eggs on plants. The mature caterpillars are plump, and yellowish green (or sometimes brownish), with the spiky tail horn typical of most sphinx moth caterpillars.
Depending on the species, these caterpillars may eat the leaves of viburnums, honeysuckles, snowberry, blueberries, and members of the rose family. They pupate in a thin cocoon in leaf litter, where they remain during the cold months, emerging as moths in late spring or early summer to visit flowers during the warm months.
Adult hummingbird moths feed on nectar, so filling your garden with native nectar-bearing plants is a great way to attract hummingbird moths, as well as hummingbirds and butterflies.