We are all naturally seekers of wonders. We travel far to see the majesty of old ruins, the venerable forms of the hoary mountains, great waterfalls, and galleries of art. And yet the world’s wonder is all around us; the wonder of setting suns, and evening stars, of the magic spring-time, the blossoming of the trees, the strange transformations of the moth…

~Albert Pike

We have a couple of species of native phlox (that I purchased at my last place of employment, the NC Botanical Garden) in our yard and this time of year it really puts on a show. It has also been attracting a few pollinators on these past few warm days. Most afternoons, the air space above our flowers is crowded with native bees, flies, butterflies, and other day-flyers.

Eastern tiger swallowtail on phlox

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail nectaring at phlox (click photo to enlarge)

Recently, the warmth brought out a different group of day-flyers…the day-flying moths. One afternoon, while sitting on the front porch, we saw a large, dark insect hovering at the phlox flowers and then zipping on to the next. It resembled a bee from a distance, but moved faster than the usual bumblebee. As I approached, I could see it was a species of day-flying moth, a Nessus Sphinx.

Nessus sphinx moth at phlox

I managed just a few pix of the Nessus Sphinx Moth (Amphion floridensis) before it whisked off

These rather robust moths are easily identified by their dark color and two bright yellow bands on their abdomen (which helps them look like a bee or wasp). Yesterday, I saw another one (same one?) hovering over the vegetation on our little slope of rock retaining wall that is a mish-mash of all sorts of vegetation, including two of this specie’s host plants – Virginia Creeper and Muscadine Grape. Here’s hoping for some larvae soon.

Hummingbird moth on phlox

Freshly eclosed Hummingbird Clearwing Moth, Hemaris thysbe. Look at those blueish highlights along the segments of the abdomen.

My favorite day-flyer of the week was a Hummingbird Clearwing Moth that had just eclosed (emerged from its pupa). Last September, I was collecting a few caterpillars (as always) for programs and this little guy started wandering off from its plant one day, so I placed it in a butterfly cage with a little tub of dirt. After a couple of days of wandering, it formed a pupa in the soil. It spent the winter (along with a few butterfly chrysalids and some other moth pupae) in our unheated workshop so as to have exposure to the cold temperatures. About once a week, I spritzed the container with water to keep them from drying out. This is the first of the crowd to emerge. I took it outside and set it on one of the phlox flowers to warm up. This is probably the most intense colors I have ever seen on one of these moths (because it is so fresh) and you can see why some people can mistake them for tiny hummingbirds as they hover around flowers. After a few minutes of sunbathing, the moth flew off. We have lots of their host plants (Coral Honeysuckle and species of Viburnum) in our yard, so I expect to find some caterpillars later this summer.

Tiny Hummers and Bumblebirds

Hummingbird Clearwing, Hemaris thysbe 1

Hummingbird Clearwing Moth

During my career at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences I once was forwarded a call from someone that was curious about something they had seen in their yard. She wanted to know what species of tiny hummingbirds were visiting her flowers. After a brief discussion, we came to the conclusion she was seeing one of a group of day-flying moths collectively known as Clearwing Moths, and based on her description of the colors, most likely the aptly named Hummingbird Clearwing.

Hummingbird Clearwing, Hemaris thysbe 2

Hummingbird Clearwing at Butterfly Bush

This common eastern species, Hemaris thysbe, has coloration and foraging behavior reminiscent of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, but is much smaller. A Hummingbird Clearwing Moth has a wingspan of about 1.5 – 2 inches, whereas the bird, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, has a wingspan of 4.5 inches. Yet it is easy to see how people could mistake these diminutive rapid fliers for the bird. They hover and flit from flower to flower sipping nectar with their long proboscis. Their wings have reddish borders and they often have a greenish hue to the “hairs” on their stout bodies. These photographs of the adult moths were taken last week while visiting my parent’s in southwest Virginia. They have several Butterfly Bushes (Buddleia sp.) which are magnets for these beautiful moths.

Hummingbird Clearwing, Hemaris thysbe 3

Hummingbird Clearwing wingbeat

One thing you notice when you watch one of these moths is the blur of their wings as they hover and feed. Try as I might, I could only occasionally get part of both wings in focus even at high shutter speeds. No wonder, as it is estimated they beat their wings 30-35 times per second (compare that to a Ruby-throated Hummingbird with an average of 50-60 beats per second). One thing the rapid burst of photos did reveal is the pattern of movement in the wings – the figure-8 motion (the photo above shows the start of the backward sweep of the figure 8), which provides lift in both directions.

Snowberry Clearwing, Hemaris diffinis 2

Snowberry Clearwing

I also noticed several individuals of the similar-looking Snowberry Clearwing (Hemaris diffinis) feeding on the Butterfly Bushes. They closely mimic bumblebees in coloration and are often called Bumblebee Moths. In one online discussion forum I even saw someone refer to these as looking half hummingbird, half bumblebee – a bumblebird! The main differences between them and the Hummingbird Clearwing is that this species tends to be slightly smaller and has a blackish abdomen with a yellow band (sometimes not complete) near the tip.

Snowberry Clearwing, Hemaris diffinis 1

Snowberry Clearwing on Butterfly Bush

Both species have a long proboscis they insert into flowers to obtain nectar. They often place their front pair of legs on the flower as they hover and feed.

Hummingbird Clearwing caterpilar

Hummingbird Clearwing caterpillar

Both Hummingbird and Snowberry Clearwings are members of the hawk moth or sphinx moth family, Sphingidae. They are among the few strictly diurnal (day-flying) members of that family and are found throughout most of the eastern United States and Canada. Their caterpillars are similar to many other sphinx moth larvae in that they have a distinctive curved horn on their posterior end (caterpillars of this family are often called hornworms). The Hummingbird Clearwing’s horn is often bluish and they have a row of orange and white spots along each side surrounding the breathing pores (spiracles).

Snowberry Clearwing caterpillar

Snowberry Clearwing caterpillar

Snowberry Clearwing larvae have blackened dots along their spiracles and a horn that is yellow at the base with a black tip. Both species use various species of Haw (Viburnum sp.) and Honeysuckle (Lonicera sp.) as host plants. I always look for them on Arrowwood Viburnum and Coral Honeysuckle in my area.

Snowberry Clearwing, Hemaris diffinis 3

Snowberry Clearwing cruising in toward a meal showing curled proboscis

If you have either of these host plants in your garden or woods, be on the lookout for the adults as they cruise and hover at your flowers in search of nectar. I see them at a wide variety of plants from non-natives like Butterfly Bush to native beauties such as Bee Balm and Phlox. Every time I see one I can’t help but pause and enjoy…and sometimes I even stalk them for an hour or more trying to get just the right photo, but I always want a better one…

Hummingbird Clearwing, Hemaris thysbe 5

Hummingbird Clearwing