July 7, 2023
Tiny hummingbird-like moth dances around the garden phlox

Editor’s Note: When this blog went up online over the weekend, moth expert Maurice Cullen noticed that the critter in these photos is a hummingbird clearwing moth, not a snowberry clearwing moth. One way the very similar moths differ is the snowberry has black legs, and the hummingbird moth has white legs, Maurice said.


By Mary Reid Barrow

A snowberry clearwing moth was a wonderful surprise visitor to the garden the other day, darting and dancing around my phlox, nectaring as it flew.

Fast moving, the little moth was hard to see and photograph as it sashayed from bloom to bloom.

Though much smaller, a little over an inch long, these day-flying moths look a little like tiny hummingbirds.  Their behavior is similar, as they feed on the wing, unfurling their long straw-like proboscis to suck up nectar, the same way a hummer flits out its long tongue to lap it up.

The deep little throats of my pink phlox suited this visitor just fine.

These little moths live across Virginia and the eastern United States, along with a very similar moth, the hummingbird clearwing. They are so similar with the same hummingbird-like behaviors that I’m not promising I’ve identified this one correctly.

The snowberry clearwing is named after one of its host plants, the snowberry plant, similar to honeysuckle, but rare in Virginia.  Here in this area, coral honeysuckle is the host plant for both the hummingbird and snowberry clearwings.

When ready to make their cocoons, the similar yellow-green caterpillars drop from their host plants to the ground. There they spend the winter and emerge in late spring.

The moths start out with darker wings but quickly many of the dark wing scales fall off, and the center of the wings become transparent.  Thus, “clearwing” is the other half of both moths’ names.

These little moths are part of the sphinx moth family.  And a couple of species of larger sphinx moths also are referred to as hummingbird moths.

These large moths start life as dreaded tomato hornworms, but when the caterpillars emerge from their cocoons, they are fantastical in their own right.

Night fliers, they swoop and dart around night bloomers, such as moonflower vines and ginger lilies.  They also feed on the wing with their long proboscis just like their smaller day-flying counterparts.

Two kinds of sphinx moths, alike in so many ways, but you also could say they are as different as night and day.


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