Sphinx Moths - Pollinator Underdogs

Excerpted from: Insect Diagnostic Lab

Sphinx moths are a great example of non-bee pollinators. Their unique behavior and anatomy allows them to form interesting relationships with some of the plants they pollinate.

  Introduction To Moths

White Lined Sphinx Moth, Hyles lineata
White Lined Sphinx Moth

For many people the very word “moth” conjures up images of holey clothing, infested cupboards, and sad powdery wings knocking at the door at night. However moths play a vital role in food webs and are an important food item for songbirds, mammals, and other insects. Moths also are important pollinators, particularly those that are active after dark, when many other pollinating animals have settled down for the night.

One study found that nocturnal moths visit more plant species than day active bees do (quite a feat considering the super-pollinator status of bees), highlighting their importance in pollen transport. Moths have wide ranging tastes in flowers. While some species are generalists, others have evolved to rely on a single plant species or group of species.

Read more: Introduction to Moth Pollination

  White Lined Sphinx Moth

Sphinx White-lined Caterpillar, Hyles lineata
White Lined Sphinx Caterpillar

One of the commonest members of this group in Wisconsin is the White Lined Sphinx Moth Hyles lineata. With a wingspan of nearly 4 inches, it’s easy to understand why this species can be mistaken for a hummingbird as it feeds.

From a distance these moths can easily be mistaken for hummingbirds as they skillfully maneuver from flower-to-flower sipping nectar with their long mouthparts.

The greyish adults are easy to pick out and a white stripe on each forewing helps identify them.

The caterpillars, also called hornworms, of this species reach nearly 3 inches in length and can feed on a wide range of plants.

With a wingspan of nearly 4 inches, it’s easy to understand why this species can be mistaken for a hummingbird as it feeds.

  Hummingbird Clearwing Moth

Hummingbird Clearwing Moth, Hemaris thysbe
Hummingbird Clearwing Moth

The rusty-colored Hummingbird Clearwing Moth, Hemaris thysbeare smaller than the white-lined sphinx moth, and have a wingspan of approximately 2 inches. Their shaggy appearance and patches of yellow coloration lend a resemblance to large bumble bees.

Characteristic transparent “windows” in the wings help identify these moths.

  Nessus Sphinx Moth

Nessus Sphinx Moth, Amphion floridensis
Nessus Sphinx Moth

The Nessus Sphinx, Amphion floridensis, is another hummingbird mimic that is commonly reported earlier in the summer. Although somewhat similar in size and coloration to the Clearwing species, the Nessus sphinx moth has opaque wings and two distinct yellow bands across the abdomen.

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