Sunday, August 8, 2010

"Look! It's It A Bird! It's A Plane! It's.......SUPERMOTH!" Hummingbird Sphinx Moth

Hummingbird or Clearwing Sphinx Moth
Last night, at a big party in Phippsburg, a lovely man asked me when I was going to post again, as I had not in five days.  He went on at some length about my past posts and how much he enjoyed them. He was animated in his descriptions of some of his favorites, all of which I found very flattering. As he told about the Bald eagle tearing the guts out of a rotting seal carcass and my tales of various wildlife image captures, I felt like a blushing school girl. Little did he know, that I already had this post in the works. And, by odd coincidence, I took these photographs the day before in his gardens!
     This is a Hummingbird Clearwing Moth, also called a Hummingbird Sphinx Moth. It's feeding on the nectar of a Monarda or Bee Balm. Using it's long proboscis to probe deep inside the flower, it feeds while hovering in flight. The side to side flight maneuver is called 'swing hovering,' a talent evolved only three times and only in nectar eaters: bats, birds and insects. Elephants do not do this, nor do any people I know, though I'd love to meet someone who does. It's an example of classic convergent evolution, when unrelated species have developed the same biological traits.
     This moth's wing span is about two inches, pretty big as insects in Maine go. Sphinx moths are the fastest flying insects on earth and having been clocked at 33 MPH! I don't know who figured that out, nor how. Were they raced around a closed track, wearing little saddles? Was some fat guy smoking a cigar standing by with a stop watch and a racing form?  "And they're OFF!" shouts the announcer as the gate snaps open. "It's Bizzy Bee on the inside, Hairy Hummer in the rear, Sticky Stan pulling into the lead!" I can smell the horse manure and dust...........snap out of it! These moths have never been confused with horses, to my knowledge. But, they are commonly mistaken for hummingbirds, thus the common names. Each year, someone tries to tell me that they are hummingbirds, which I consistently can demonstrate through photographs to not be true; many races are decided by a photo finish.
The moth's proboscis extends as much as two inches to get to the nectar.
There are 1,200 different kinds of these moths in the world. Maine only boasts two or three. The larval stage of one of Maine's species of Sphinx moths is the dreaded Tomato Horn Worm. The Tomato Horn worm can eat its way be a huge, 3-4 inches long as it devastates tomato plants. Posted by Picasa


  1. Hey Robin....they are the cutest the clear winged ones!!
    They have just been real busy in my bee balm too..and move quick..I posted a couple on my blog last week and it was a good thing there was 3 or 4 of them so I could at least catch a few pictures!!
    Quite a change from dead carcasses and eagle poop!!
    Nice pics and post ....say Hi to the Buthchie Boys if you ever see them again!! ; }

  2. The only way I can tolerate seeing a bug this big is in your photographs. I'm afraid if I saw one in person I'd either faint dead away or run around screaming like a little girl. Which would be rather hard, now that i think about it, since my power chair never goes very fast. Hmm. May have to think up another analogy.

    And speaking of which, I laughed out loud reading your horse-racing scenario. I could just see it! I'm very good at visualizing, um... unusual scenes. I often do it with body parts/ organs, especially when I'm trying to teach a non-medical person how their body works--or doesn't, as the case may be.

    Anyway, thanks for this. I love your photography!! Rated. D
    Yarn Over
    August 08, 2010 11:49

  3. I did say to myself today"self, Robin hasn't posted a blog for a while,hmmm" I knew about the sphinx moth as I had a conversation with someone one day that thought it was a hummer.Love the racetrack story.
    Great moth pics.

  4. WOW, I love your photos of the Hummer Moth! I've only ever seen one, during the summer of '07 on a butterfly bush in our neighbors yard.

    But are you sure it's the fastest insect in Maine? The reason I ask is because as soon as I step out onto our back deck, mosquito's the size and speed of Harrier jump jets begin making strafing runs on me. I thought one time I saw a tree frog in the gunners seat! Of course to prove this, I would need a photo that was witnessed by 30 people who saw the photo taken and authenticated by 25 experts from the records committee.


  5. Apt description...super moth!

  6. Wow...what great photos of these little critters. I've been seeing them all summer, but never get photos this good :-) Thanks for stopping by my blog!

  7. Amazing! Never saw a Sphinx Moth before so I really enjoyed your beautiful photos. Have seen a Tomato Horn Worm while living in Connecticut. What an appetite they have!

  8. Awesome photo's. Thanks for sharing!


  10. Thanks all for the flattering and great comments! I love it that you guys stop by and are moved enough by what you read and see to write. You can gaurantee that there will more coming, too.

  11. Robin,
    Enjoyed your pictures of the Hummingbird clearwing. I wanted to suggest that perhaps some of what you got off the internet is not 100 % accurate. There are more than 3 kinds of Sphinx Moths in Maine. In 1974 A. E. Brower, State Entomologist for Maine, listed 40 species for Maine back then.He was an amazing entomologist. Many more species have been found in Maine since then, and I would guess that over 50 species have been found in Maine.
    I would also suggest that the Hummingbird clearwing can not fly anywhere near 30 mph, and that the experiment with speed came from a tropical sphinx. This seems to me Hype for the fastest insect in the world. Some big flies, and big dragonflies are undoubtedly faster in flight than Sphinx moths but perhaps not been used in laboratory experiments. Some Dragonflies, large ones, have to be shot down with dust shot from a rifle because they can't be caught by a person with a net.
    Anyway, really like your photos. I also have long loved Hummingbird clearwings. In Texas, they have some other small Hummingbird clearwings like these. A new U.S. Record for a Hummingbird from Mexico in Texas was rejected by the Texas Rare Bird Commitee because the poor photo submitted of it was shown to be a type of Hummingbird Moth from Mexico.
    Moths really do travel great distances and come into the U.S. from Mexico and further South, just like Birds.
    Anyway, thanks for the pictures and information. Keep up the good work!
    Take the very best care.

  12. Thanks for the facts, Paul. My info sounded much more romantic, though. Didn't it? I'll make sure to site my sources from now on.

  13. Interesting post, Robin, with lots of great pics and info! most of which I did not know. I once saw a hummingbird moth on a flowering hedge in Montana, one of my great memories from a trip to Yellowstone Park.

  14. What great captures of a very lovely creature! I don't believe I've ever seen one in life.

  15. Hey Robin: those moth photos are fabulous they are definitely contenders !!! I so enjoy your posts, you made my day !! keep them coming.

    Bonnie Kynoch

  16. I have seen lots and lots of these this year and have been wondering what they are as they are quite amazing.....thanks for the info!

  17. Paul, I knew Dr. Brower as my mother was a professor of the Sciences. When she taught entomology I used to catch insects for some of her students (for a fee!! ha!) I remember putting fleas and ticks into little vials of alcohol... they sold for a quarter each.

    Also, my mother always said the Tomato Hornworm turned into a Hawk Moth... but I just looked it up and it appears they sometimes call the hawk moth the hummingbird moth, so maybe they are the same.

    Either way, Love the hummingbird moth... don't care much for the tomato hornworm!! ha!!

  18. We get hummingbird moths (not as colorful as yours) at our butterfly bushes. Great, great pictures.
    August 14, 2010 05:36 PM

  19. Paul, I got curious so I checked some of this out.. According to the "USGS: Moths of North America", there are only 3 Hemaris Spinx (Hummingbird Clearwing Moths) in Maine. (Hemaris genus are collectively called Clearwing Moths or Hummingbird Moths, in the Sphinx catagory). The three Maine clearwings are the Snowberry Clearwing, the Slender Clearwing, and the Hummingbird Clearwing Moth (shown here in Robin's photos). The other 20+ Spinx/Hawk moths in Maine are rather ugly, common looking moths that would never be mistaken for a hummingbird, except maybe for their size. So Robin is right in saying there are only three of "this kind... in Maine". Also, USGS says "it flaps its wings an astonishing 25 to 30 beats per second. Some sphinx moths have been clocked at speeds as high as 30 mph".

    I always thought the reason a dragonfly is difficult to catch is because it has a type of radar... not because of it's speed. It has a sensor that tells it to zig when you zag. LOL

  20. Oh, Loretta, Loretta! A girl can always use an ally like you! Love it!

  21. I love these moths!! very need looking!! great images of them too!!!

  22. I have seen this moth for the first time this year in my garden. I was searching the web looking for something that it could be. Happily your blog came up. Thanks for solving my mystery.

  23. Thank you for posting about this moth! My 6 year old daughter just came running in the house, asking for a jar for her brother. My son came in with THIS MOTH in a jar and asked me to google it. I found your post using the search words 'Maine moth August". He was so animated as he told me about how it flew backwards, and was really fast! How delighted we were to find your post telling us all about the Hummingbird Sphynx Moth!