Animal Spotlight: Hummingbird Hawk-Moth

Taxonomy:

ic_macroglossum_stellatarum1_nr-1280x1078
Credit: Diliff
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Arthropoda
  • Class: Insecta
  • Order: Lepidoptera
  • Family: Sphingidae
  • Genus: Macroglossum
  • Species: Stellatarum
  • Size: Medium / Large Sized
  • Wing Span Range (male to female) – 4-5 cm

The Hummingbird Hawk-Moth is a small, day-flying hawk-moth. Like the name mentions, these moths are frequently seen in gardens hovering like hummingbirds to feed on the nectar of honeysuckle, red valerian, and many other flowers.

As a summer visitor, the Hummingbird Hawk-Moth migrates north from Southern Europe and North Africa in variable numbers each year. In particular, the moths are most numerous in Southern and Eastern England, South Wales, and the Midlands. The moth has no preference in habitats as it has been seen from coastal areas to gardens, woodland rides, and urban areas.

Physical Characteristics:

10172854225_547570f1a7_k-1280x853
Credit: Natural England

Like their common name suggests, Hummingbird Hawk-Moths fly and move just like hummingbirds. Just like the small birds, these moths remain suspended in the air in front of the flower as they unfurl their long tongues into the flowers to sip on nectar. Not to mention that they also emit an audible hum similar to hummingbirds. The similarities between the two species is an example of convergent evolution: when an identical biological trait is acquired in completely unrelated lineages. This typically occurs when the two species occupy a similar or the same ecological niche.

In addition, the moth has elongated hairs, causing it to appear to have feathers and a broad, fan-like tail.

Similar to the Bee Hawk-Moth, this moth has greyish-brown forewings and a plump, greyish body. What sets the two species apart is the hummingbird Hawk-Moth’s orange-brown hindwings.

Like all Lepidoptera, their wings are covered in scales. Some species lose many of the scales in patches on their wings over time and are called clearwing hummingbird moths.

The larva stage mainly occurs during the months of June through October. The caterpillar is distinguished by a ‘horn’ on the end of the green body, confirming that it is a hawk-moth caterpillar. Its yellow stripes down the side identify it as a Hummingbird Hawk-Moth.

After as little as only twenty days depending on the warmth, it will prepare itself to pupate. Instead of attaching itself to a plant, it will make its cocoon close to the ground, near the base of the plant among foliage and leaf litter.

A hawk-moth’s eggs are green, pale, and glossy. With only a diameter of a single millimeter, the eggs resemble the buds of the host plant, Galium, and typically take up to eight days to hatch.

macroglossum-stellatarum-caterpillar-3088-liosi
Credit: A. M. Liosi

Diet:

The Hummingbird Hawk-Moth will hover to feed on tubular flowers from plants such as Viper’s Bugloss, Red Valerian, Jasmine, Petunia, Buddleia, Lady’s Bedstraw, Wild Madder, and Hedge Bedstraw.

Its larvae’ favorite food plants are bedstraws and madders, but have been recorded on other flower genuses like Rubiaceae, Centranthus, Stellaria, and Epilobium.

Behavior:

Adult Hummingbird Hawk-Moths do not feed aimlessly. They have been observed to trap-line, meaning that they return to the same plants at the same time each day.

One of the moth’s most notable behavior is migration. Though it is abundant and resident all around the Mediterranean countries and across Central Asia, every spring, thousands have been well documented to migrate northward in Europe. Once autumn is around the corner, a return migration has also been documented.

In the British Isle, the moths can be seen throughout the islands every year. In the past, it has been recorded in every country, including the far north Orkney and Shetland Islands. Their main season runs from June to September, though smaller numbers remain for the rest of the year. The late summer peak in numbers is largely due to the emergence of locally raised moths. Though they breed successfully in the United Kingdom, the moths cannot survive the winter. Thus, the continuing presence is dependent on the annual influx from southern France.

Moths are often considered to be nocturnal, but the Hummingbird Hawk-Moth is a diurnal creature, going out at both dusk and dawn. It is regularly seen flying around during the day, particularly when the sun is shining brightly.

macroglossum-stellatarum-060727-107s-bastian
Credit: Jutta Bastian

Unlike other moth species, the hawk-moth does not avoid rain and will still fly around unless it it heavy rain.

Research shows that this species of moth has a pretty good ability when it comes to learning colors, an important skill to differentiate its favored food sources from others.

Conservation:

The Hummingbird Hawk-Moth is known to have a stable population with no any recent threats to the species’ survival. In fact, its numbers appear to be increasing, probably as a result of climate change. With warmer weather, the moth is able to survive the winters.

Because it is assumed that the Hummingbird Hawk-Moth is not threatened, the IUCN has not yet assessed the species.

Interesting Facts:

  • The Hummingbird Hawk-Moth is considered a good omen in Italy and Malta. A swarm was observed crossing the English Channel towards England on D-day in 1944.
  • Hawk-Moth is known to be a fast flier. While scientists have not yet measured its top speed, another related species, the Manduca sexta, was clocked at 12 miles per hour (5.3 meters per second). It is assumed that its airspeed record is probably in the same ballpark.
  • Another family of moths, with the same local (Hummingbird Hawk-moth) name, can be found in the United States. In Europe, this species is referred to as bee moths.
  • It can found all over the Old World, from the coast of Portugal to the islands of Japan. Its range does not extend very far north due to its preference of a warm climate. The moth would not survive the winter anywhere north of the Alps of the Caucasus.
  • Unlike most moths, the Hummingbird Hawk-Moth will produce at least two, and up to four, broods of eggs in a year.

References + For More Reading:

Hummingbird Hawk-Moth/Painted Lady Survey

Humming-bird Hawk-moth

Macroglossum stellatarum

The Amazing Hummingbird Hawk Moth

Hummingbirds and Hawkmoths

Featured Creature: Hummingbird Hawk-Moth

BBC: Hummingbird HawkMoth

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