Zoo-Ology: What are those small creatures that resemble hummingbirds?

Aug. 7, 2011 at 3:07 a.m.

Sphinx or hawk moths resemble hummingbirds.

Sphinx or hawk moths resemble hummingbirds.

By Judie Farnsworth

Early one evening, I decided to do some weeding while it was cooler.

As I approached the intended garden, I was delighted to see several tiny hummingbirds - or at least I thought they were hummingbirds.

But, they were awfully small and didn't fuss at each other.

They surely moved just like hummers, hovering and fanning their tails. I carefully edged closer. Their bodies were olive colored with dark rust on the underside. They sounded like hummers, too, but still, there was something not quite right.

I went for my binoculars. Good grief. The little devils had horns on their heads.

What on earth? Under closer scrutiny, I could see that although they moved like hummers and sounded like hummers, they were bugs of some sort. The horns were actually antennae. Amazing.

Since that time, I've heard other people mention seeing these so-called baby hummingbirds. Maybe you have, too.

What I saw, in reality, was a moth; one of 125 species in the sphinx, or hawk moth, (Sphingidae) family that live in the U.S. They can be called clearwing moths, hummingbird moths or hawk moths.

The moths I saw resembled ruby-throated hummingbirds. A variety of traits can be seen.

There's even a species (snowberry clearwing hummingbird moth) that resembles a bumble bee.

Unlike most moths that are nocturnal (night active), some of these creatures are more diurnal (day active), which can add to the puzzlement.

They're beneficial as pollinators, zipping and sipping from bloom to bloom and may fly at speeds of 30 mph.

Like hummingbirds, they hover while eating and may swing-hover back and forth as they search for nectar. They sip through a straw-like tube called a proboscis that can be as long as, or longer than their body. It rolls out like the paper birthday favors we blow into at parties. When not in use, it's coiled under the head.

Hummingbird moths are partial to sweet scents. Japanese honeysuckle, phlox, verbena and bee balm are a few favorites. In some Texas areas, these moths seem to appear about the time bluebells are blooming.

In the spring, hummingbird moths lay small, green eggs on the undersides of leaves.

The caterpillars that hatch are yellowish-green with reddish spots on their sides and have a harmless yellow tail horn. They will make a cocoon in soil or leaf litter and become a pupa, which is a resting stage, before emerging as a moth.

If they pupate late in the season, they will over-winter before emerging.

There are more than 900 species worldwide and some are pretty awesome. There's a species in Europe and Asia called a death's-head hawk-moth that has a human skull shaped pattern on the thorax.

The elephant hawk-moth of Europe, China and the Mediterranean has a trunk-like snout as a caterpillar. If threatened, it draws its snout in and resembles a snake.

Hummingbird moths are harmless and their nectar-sipping causes no damage to flowers.

Even the hornworm caterpillar stage of most hummingbird moths is of relatively minor importance. They should be a welcomed garden visitor.

Judie Farnsworth is a longtime volunteer at the Texas Zoo, specializing in educational programs.



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