Picture walks: The incredible hummingbird moth

By Jeanne Church

A hummingbird clearwing moth on some bee balm. Photo by Jeanne Church.

Hummingbird moths are incredibly interesting insects. They look like giant bumblebees, fly like tiny hummingbirds, and have been mistaken for both!

The first time someone pointed out a hummingbird moth to me, they identified it as a baby hummingbird. It was an easy mistake to make. These moths hover in midair just like a hummingbird, and they drink nectar from the same flowers. The problem is, hummingbird babies don’t fly! When hummingbird chicks emerge from the nest, they are nearly as big as their parents.

People frequently mistake hummingbird moths for hummingbirds because they both hover in front of flowers to drink the nectar. Other than that, they have little in common. Hummingbird moths are smaller than hummingbirds by one or two inches, and they are covered in hair, not feathers. When drinking nectar, hummingbird moths use their proboscis which is like a straw, and hummingbirds use their long, forked tongues in combination with their beaks. The easiest way to tell them apart, I think, especially if you can only see them from the back, is to look for the antennas. Moths have them, hummingbirds do not!

Hummingbird moths have been easily mistaken for bumblebees as well. One hummingbird moth in particular, the snowberry clearwing, with its yellow and black hair, looks so much like a bumblebee that it is often referred to as a “bumblebee moth”.

There are four different species of hummingbird moths in North America: hummingbird clearwing, snowberry clearwing, slender clearwing and the Rocky Mountain clearwing. All but the Rocky Mountain clearwing are here in Michigan. The two hummingbird moths that you are most likely to see in your garden are the hummingbird clearwing and the snowberry clearwing.

I’ve photographed dozens of hummingbird moths over the years, but it has always been a challenge. As soon as I zero in on one, it’s gone! They move from one flower to another so quickly and so erratically that they are hard to catch. A hummingbird moth’s wings beat 70 times a second, and, if my shutter speed is set too slow, their wings will just be a blur! By comparison, the wings of a ruby-throated hummingbird beat at 53 times per second, which is still amazingly fast.

If you’re interested in attracting hummingbird moths to your yard, there are many flowering plants to choose from. As a rule of thumb, if you see bees and butterflies gravitating towards a certain type of plant, it will probably hold the same appeal for hummingbird moths. Adult hummingbird moths particularly love bee balm, butterfly bush, purple coneflower, honeysuckle, lantana, lilac, petunia, verbena, zinnia and morning glory. Almost all the hummingbird moths I have photographed have been on the lavender-colored bee balm that grows wild in the open fields.

Hummingbird moth caterpillars require a little bit different diet than their parents, and the female moth will lay her eggs only on the plants that her offspring will enjoy. These plants, called “host plants”, include coralberry, dogbane, hawthorn, cherry, teasel, plum, snowberry, viburnum and several species of honeysuckle. The caterpillar that hatches from those eggs will feast on the leaves and become a fat, tasty treat for a wide variety of birds — unless it’s lucky enough to make it to adulthood!

As September comes rolling in, it will be harder and harder to find hummingbird moths in your garden or out in the fields, but not impossible! These fascinating little insects are typically here from late spring until early fall. If you do happen to see one in your garden, take note of the time. Chances are, if it returns, it will come back around the same time.


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