Plants & Animals

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From Missouri Conservationist: Sep 2015

Hummingbird Clearwing Moth

Hummingbird Clearwing Moths (Hemaris thysbe) are often mistaken for hummingbirds. In flight, the moth’s wings mimic those of bumblebees or hummingbirds, beating rapidly at 25–30 beats per second, and are nearly invisible to the human eye.

I usually encounter these hummingbird-like moths unexpectedly, while photographing flowers or insects in a field. They often buzz by me so quickly that I don’t have enough time to react, much less compose a good image. To get a clear shot of this fast-moving moth in flight, you’d need a fast shutter speed in the right setting, a macro lens to allow a closer focus than a normal lens, and a good flash. In other words, you must be ready to photograph them. So when I ran into one hovering over a patch of flowers, I decided to get ready and give it a shot. The hummingbird clearwing moth is one of 125 moths in the sphinx- or hawk-moth family (Sphingidae) that inhabits North America. Of these, 56 live in Missouri. Sphinx moths or hawk moths, like hummingbird clearwing moths, are known for their strong and rapid wing beats and swooping flight, and are among the few groups of insects that can hover.

There are three similar types of sphinx moths — the hummingbird clearwing, the snowberry clearwing (Hemaris diffinis), and the slender clearwing (Hemaris gracilis). Only two, the hummingbird and snowberry, are common in Missouri, while the slender clearwing is found in eastern parts of the United States.

While most sphinx moths feed at night, hummingbird clearwing moths prefer to feed during the day. Like hummingbirds, they fly in a quick, darting manner and hover over flowers while sipping nectar with a long, thin proboscis. With its furry body, the moth helps pollinate flowers, and it’s the primary pollinator for some species of orchids.

Males have flared tails that resemble hovering hummingbirds. One noticeable difference between the moths and the hummingbirds is their size — a hummingbird moth is usually half the size of a hummingbird.

They can be found in a variety of habitats, including open field meadows, forests, or urban gardens. Even though they start flying in spring, you’re most likely to see them between June and August when their favorite flowers contain the most nectar.

If you happen to find this interesting moth in your garden and want to try photographing it, follow these tips:

  • Use a mid-range shutter speed — such as 1/250 — in manual setting, a macro lens, and a flash — multiple, if possible.
  • Stay low and move slowly.
  • Pay attention to the moth’s movement.
  • Locate several flowers it likes to visit. Take note of the time because it’s likely to make a return appearance.

The next time something buzzes by you, don’t just assume it’s a bee. Take a second look — it might just be a hummingbird clearwing moth.

—Story and photographs by Noppadol Paothong

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This Issue's Staff

Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld
Art Director - Cliff White
Associate Editor - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Heather Feeler
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Circulation - Laura Scheuler