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.
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
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.
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
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
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.