Yard Distraction

You can always find a distraction if you are looking for one.

~Tom Kite

The beautiful weather this week finds me outside starting some yard work – weed pulling, mulching, contemplating building some benches for the fire circle, etc. As is often the case, yesterday something caught my eye and pulled me away from my tasks for a few minutes. It was some rapid movement in a bed of Wild Blue Phlox (one of my favorite native spring wildflowers, Phlox divaricata). It was the blur of wing beats of a Hummingbird Clearwing moth zipping from flower to flower, gathering nectar with its long proboscis. Below is a photo I took a few years ago of one of the caterpillars. We have plenty of host plants for this species around the yard including some Viburnums and lots of Coral Honeysuckle.

– Hummingbird Clearwing Moth caterpillar (click photo to enlarge)

The spike at the tip of the abdomen helps identify this larva as one the Sphinx Moth group. Adult Sphinx Moths are all excellent flyers with many have swept back wings that resemble fighter jet profiles. We have two common species of day-flying Sphinx Moths in our area, the Hummingbird Clearwing (Hemaris thysbe) and the Snowberry Clearwing (Hemaris diffinis). In an earlier post, I detailed some of the life history of these beautiful day-flying moths.

The reddish colors on the wings and abdomen of the one that pulled me from my chores told me I was looking at a Hummingbird Clearwing, so named because they really do resemble tiny hummingbirds in both form and habits. This is an excellent example of convergent evolution where two two species develop similar features despite not sharing a common ancestor. Both the moth and the bird occupy similar ecological niches and have evolved similar characteristics to best take advantage of their lifestyle. Both have rapid wing beats that allow them to hover and move backwards. Both have physical traits that allow them to probe deep into flowers for nectar, and, surprisingly (to me anyway), both have evolved similar basic color patterns (though the moths are much more variable than the birds).

I spent a few minutes following the moth around the flower patch as it fed on the flowers of phlox (its primary focus), foamflower and one iris. Since I was supposedly working, my camera gear was safely tucked away inside, but I did have that other camera, my iPhone, in my pocket. So, I grabbed it and attempted (key word) to get some video if the buzzing insect.

Below are two clips, one showing the moth feeding at actual speed, the other at 25% of normal speed. In both, the wings are beating so fast that it is tough to get a clear view of them, but if you look closely at the slow motion video, you can see the shallow figure eight pattern of wing movement that helps with hovering like in a hummingbird’s wing beat. I have read conflicting reports on the speed of the moth’s wing beats, ranging from about 35 per second up to around 80+ per second. Either way, they are fast – so fast that you can actually hear a humming sound if you are close enough.

— Hummingbird Clearwing Moth feeding at Wild Blue Phlox

— That same footage at 25% actual speed

Note the long, curved proboscis (tongue) of the moth and how it so accurately inserts it into the center of each flower it visits. The moth uses its front two legs to help balance itself as it approaches each flower. You can also see how the proboscis, head, and legs are coated with pollen, indicating this busy insect is probably an efficient pollinator of many of our wildflowers.

After following the moth around for a bit, it zipped off across the yard and disappeared. I finally got back to my chores, but was happy to have yet another wild distraction come my way.

6 thoughts on “Yard Distraction

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s