It looks and acts like a hummingbird but it’s really a moth – wait, what?
That’s right, there are at least three hummingbird moth species (Lepidoptera: Sphingidae) in Michigan that might be visiting your flowers: hummingbird clearwing Hemaris thysbe, snowberry clearwing Hemaris diffinis, and slender clearwing Hemaris gracilis. They mimic hummingbirds and are fascinating to watch!
Hummingbird clearwing Hemaris thysbe taken 8.20.18 in Kalamazoo
Hummingbirds are typically 3.5 inches long, weigh 1/8 ounce, have plain, feathered wings that beat an average of 52 times per second, and use a long needle-like beak with a forked tongue to gather nectar. Hummingbird moths are about 1-2 inches in length, have antennae, a long proboscis to gather nectar, and depending on the species can have almost clear or colorful wings that can beat 70 times per second in the same figure-eight pattern as the hummingbird. Hummingbirds can live 3-5 years while hummingbird moths live just 8-9 months or a little longer.
Snowberry clearwing Hemaris diffinis taken 8.15.18 in Kalamazoo
They both hover and fly in different directions, they are comparably very zippy, visit similar plants for nectar, and both have fanned tails. The hummingbird moth is an insect that begins life as a tiny egg and morphs through its life stages as egg, larvae, caterpillar, chrysalis, moth. The caterpillars of each of the Hemaris species pupate in cocoons spun in debris at the soil level and once they hatch, their food sources as an adult may include lilacs, lantana, orange hawkweed, berry bushes, bee balm, phlox, and summer lilacs – also known as butterfly bush. North America has four Hemaris species – the three listed above and the fourth, Hemaris thetis, is only found in the western half of the US and in British Columbia, Canada.
Snowberry clearwing Hemaris diffinis mating taken 8.20.18 in Kalamazoo
While there are large moths that may be seen sipping nectar from flowers (and sometimes feeders), the purist will say that only the species of the genus Hemaris are the true hummingbird moths. There are other moths such as the nessus sphinx Amphion floridensis that looks very similar the Hemaris species except that A. floridensis has solid-colored wings. The moth that emerges from the often-reviled tomato hornworm is the five-spotted hawkmoth and is referred to by some, as a hummingbird moth.
To attract hummingbird moths and other pollinators, try planting several butterfly and snowberry bushes together. It may take a while for the hummingbird moths to find new food sources but once they’ve arrived, the chance to observe these beautiful insects is worth the wait!