Home > Columns > Sphinx Moth

 

NatureSmart Column

Sphinx Moth

Photo by Stan Tekiela

by Stan Tekiela
© NatureSmart

November 23, 2022

Early fall brings an amazing insect to our flower gardens across the United States. It is the White-lined Sphinx Moth (Hyles lineata) also called the Hawk Moth or Hummingbird Moth. No matter what name you use, this is a large nectar feeding moth that looks and acts just like a hummingbird.

A unique insect that is found world-wide, with over 1,400 different kinds of Sphinx Moth. The vast majority of them are found in the tropical parts of the world but a few reaches into the United States. The White-lined Sphinx Moth is the most common and wide spread of the hummingbird type of moth in North America. They are found from Central America all the way up to Canada and across most states.

The other evening, I was standing in my perennial flower garden surrounded by flowers and noticed a White-lined Sphinx Moth going from flower to flower. It has large 2–3-inch wingspan and hovers at flowers just like a hummingbird. Typically, they come out in the evening with an hour or two of light remaining in the day. I ran to grab a camera and lens to capture this amazing, winged beauty.

The Sphinx Moth uses a combination of olfactory (smelling) and visual senses to find flowers. Their eyes are sensitive to blue, green, and ultra-violet light. Many flowers reflect UV light which turns the flowers into beacons to attract these insects. Although vision is a key sensory component, they also have a very strong olfactory senses. They can smell (with their antenna) different flower odors and follow the smell to find new patches of flowers.

When feeding, they approach the flower and hover in mid-air. This hovering capability is unique and has only been known to have evolved in just hummingbirds, a few bat species and these moths. The Sphinx Moth are some of the fastest flying insects and are capable of flying over 10 MPH. While standing in my garden and trying to capture some images, several times the moths were zipping around me so fast I could barely see where they were going.

While hovering at a flower, they unfurl their long straw-like mouth part called a proboscis. They expertly insert the tip of the proboscis into the corolla (tube) of the flower, which is where the nectar is located, and take a quick sip. They withdraw their mouth part, coil it up again and move onto the next flower and repeat. They often allow you to approach closely to get a good look at them while feeding.

While I was trying to capture some images of the sphinx moth, I noticed a second then third one hovering at the flowers. Soon I could see five moths feeding at my flowers. I could see that all of them were the White-lined Sphinx Moth. You can identify them by the white lines down their wings and also they have six distinct white stripes on their furry body. They also have a large pink patch on their hindwing (they have four wings, two on each side). Usually, you can’t see the pink patch unless you are photographing and capture the wings in an open position.

There are two distinct “flights” of the sphinx moth each year. The first occurs in late spring and a second in late summer and early fall. The early fall flight usually has many more moths. The adults usually don’t survive winter. After mating the females will lay eggs which hatch into large green caterpillars with a single horn protruding at the back. This is why they are sometimes called horn-worms. The caterpillar stage of life is well known for eating a lot. They feed on the green leaves of many species of plant. When it is ready to change (metamorphosis) into the adult moth the caterpillar digs a shallow burrow in the ground where it stays for 2 to 3 weeks. When it’s ready to emerge as an adult, it wiggles up through the soil just before transforming into the adult moth and takes flight.

In many areas they have two generations per year but in warmer climates they can have three generations. They often fly in small groups so if you see one there is often a few more around, and you just need to look for more. This is an amazing insect species and I hope you get a chance to see one for yourself. Until next time…

 

Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the U.S. to study and capture images of wildlife. He can be followed at www.facebook.com and twitter.com. He can be contacted via his web page at www.naturesmart.com.

 

The nationally syndicated NatureSmart Column appears in over 25 cities spanning 7 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. It is a bi-weekly column circulated to over 750,000 readers.

Recent Columns
Most RecentAbout Stan's Columns

Osprey Migration

Sitting at the edge of the nest the young Osprey was calling out in a begging call trying to be fed. His high-pitched screams echo across the lake and unfortunately go unanswered. His parents are not around. He is all alone and worse yet, he is hungry.

Back in June of this year a pair of...

Goldenrod vs Ragweed

What you see is not always what you think it is. This could be my mantra for nature. At this time of year many people are suffering from fall allergies, often called seasonal allergies. The runny nose, itchy eyes and feeling run down is sometimes too much to take. So naturally, we look around...

Common Nighthawk

In nature, if there is a niche, there is no doubt it will be filled. And it is usually filled with the most interesting of critter. This is the pattern that has made nature so incredibly diverse over millions of years. So, it shouldn’t be any surprise that some birds are not like others...

Wildlife Photography Tours

Each year, during June and July, Stan Tekiela offers two world-class wildlife photography tours. Here's your chance to learn some tricks of the trade from a top professional.

» More Info

View all of the titles in the
NatureSmart Bookstore

Check out Stan's latest photos at
NatureSmart Wildlife Images

Do you have any interesting wildlife in your backyard? Any nesting birds, deer, turkeys, reptiles, amphibians, or other unique wildlife? Or maybe a fox or coyote den?

If so, contact Stan at stan@naturesmart.com with your backyard wildlife. If he can get a good photo of the subject, he will send you a print of the photo to hang on your wall.

» More Info

Order Prints and posters of Stan's photos at
» Prints & Posters

Hear Stan on radio stations all across the Midwest.
» More Info