Hummingbird moth a sight to behold
Summer always brings a host of buzzing insects to the garden. One insect you may have caught sight of in recent weeks is the hummingbird moth. These fast-flying insects are amazing to watch as they flit about the garden, searching for nectar from zinnias, bee balm, cosmos, lantana and many other flowers.
There are four species of hummingbird moths found in North America, with three of them commonly occurring here in the Northeast. They are readily distinguished from other insects found in the garden, as they are great mimics of hummingbirds. They can hover over flowers, much like their namesake bird, and their tail spreads out into a fan shape to help them maneuver in flight. But, upon closer inspection, you’ll see these insects use a long tongue, called a proboscis, to seek nectar from flowers, rather than a beak. And, like all insects, they have six legs, rather than a hummingbird’s two.
The first of Pennsylvania’s three common species is the hummingbird clearwing moth ( Hemaris thysbe). It measures 1 1⁄4 to 2 inches in length with a 2-inch wingspan and has a green area on the back of its head that extends halfway down its back. The rest of the body is dark brown to black, and its legs are black. The second species, the slender clearwing moth ( Hemaris gracilis), looks almost exactly the same, except the legs are red.
The third species is the snowberry clearwing ( Hemaris diffinis). Similar in size to the other two species, the snowberry clearwing has a wide band of creamy yellow coloration behind its head. Lower on the abdomen is a black area, and just above the tail is another narrow, creamy yellow stripe.
The wings of all three species are lacking scales in some places, making them appear to be clear in certain areas. All species of hummingbird moths are active during the day, unlike the vast majority of moths, which are active only at night.
Contrary to popular belief, the larvae of hummingbird moths are not tomato hornworms, though they are the same shade of bright green and they have a soft, horn-like spike on their posterior. Instead, their caterpillar’s host foods of choice include snowberry, honeysuckle, dogbane, hawthorn, cherry, blueberry, laurel and viburnum, depending on the species.
Hummingbird moths are friends of the garden. As they sip nectar, they transfer pollen from flower to flower as it clings to their hairy bodies. If you spot one of these fascinating creatures, simply enjoy the show and let it go about its business in peace.
Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio with Doug Oster. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden: A Natural Approach to Pest Control” and “Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her website is jessicawalliser.com.
Send your gardening or landscaping questions to [email protected] or The Good Earth, 503 Martindale St., 3rd Floor, D.L. Clark Building, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.