In the mythologies of a number of ancient cultures, the sphinx was a mysterious creature with a human head and the body of a lion. We too have some mysterious sphinxes to marvel at each summer. Among Missouri’s insects, sphinx moths can appear to be part hummingbird, part bat and part moth. I’ve even heard the hummingbird clearwing moth described as having the clear wings of a wasp or bee and the body of a crayfish. Because some species in this group of insects hover at flowers to suck nectar with their long tongues, they often prompt questions among observers who are not accustomed to seeing that behavior by moths. Adding to the mystery is that some of the larger sphinx moths are actively visiting flowers at twilight; their erratic, early evening flights leading some to wonder if they may be small bats.
Many of the sphinx, or hawk moths, are rather large (almost 5-inch wingspans) and mostly a mottled brown overall, but many have showy pink coloration on their hind wings. Several species do not feed at all in the adult stage, so those species do not hover in front of open flowers. The species that do feed have long tongues that allow them to reach nectar at the base of the trumpet-shaped flowers, such as four-o’clocks, evening primrose, soapwort and petunias. The tomato hornworm, familiar to many home gardeners, is the larval stage of the five-spotted hawk moth, a large moth with a wingspan of 4 3/4 inches, that does sip flower nectar.
The hummingbird clearwing and the similar snowberry clearwing are the sphinx moths that look like a cross between a bumblebee and a hummingbird. The clear portions of the wings are bee-like and the hovering behavior resembles that of a hummingbird. They even have short, tail-like hairs that will fan out like the tail of a hummingbird or the rear-end of a crawfish. Foraging during the day, they are often described as miniature hummingbirds by observers not familiar with this group of moths.
If you are near some late-blooming flowers on a summer twilight, keep an eye out for the mysterious sphinxes of Missouri.
Photos from bugwood.org
Top - White-lined sphinx moth, photo by Terry Curtis
Middle - Pandora sphinx moth, photo by Lacy L. Hyche
Bottom - Hummingbird clearwing moth, photo by David Cappaert