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by Stan Tekiela
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.
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