Stocky and fuzzy with a tail like a lobster, the Clearwing Hummingbird Moth sipped nectar from the purple flowers of the New York Ironweed.
I was eating lunch on a bench at Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education when I was surprised by this moth whizzing by me.
It was the first time I had seen a Clearwing Hummingbird Moth up close. I had read about it and seen photos, but that did not prepare me to be so fascinated by the brilliant colors and behavior of the moth.
I noticed the lovely crimson color on the fuzzy body first. The cream, the crimsons, oranges and olive-green should have clashed and looked cheesy but didn’t.
The delicate tail feathers spread out like the tail of a lobster. The clear wings of the moth looked like stained glass. Hummingbird moths lose most of the scales that cover and color their wings. This shedding of scales leaves the wings clear with a hint of reddish-brown color along the edges.
The moth was about the size of a hummingbird and flew like a hummingbird but the antenna give it away. It hovered in mid-air like hummingbird and flitted from flower to flower. The moth’s rapid wing beats even made a humming sound like a hummingbird.
This day-flying moth is widespread in North America. And is most often found in open areas such as woodlands, fields, parks and gardens. Adults begin flying in early spring when bluebells begin to bloom. The moths are most active in summer when various Bee balms are blooming. Their very long tongues (proboscis) can reach deep into long-necked blossoms of Bee Balms and Virginia Bluebells. The long proboscis is kept coiled underneath the head like a party noise-maker.
Other nectar flowers the Hummingbird Moth enjoys are Red Clover, Phloxes, Cranberry, Blueberry, Vetches, Thistles and New York Ironweed.
Clearwing Hummingbird Moth Life Cycle
The Clearwing Hummingbird Moths are classified in the Sphinx Moth family. The female moths lays her eggs on larval host plants such as Honeysuckle (Lonicera), Snowberry (Symphoricarpos), Hawthorns (Crataegus), Cherries and Plums (Prunus). To find the eggs look for tiny, round green eggs on the underside of the larval host plant leaves.
The green caterpillars are rather plain compared to the spectacular look of the adult moth. One distinguishing feature of the Sphinx family of moths is that the caterpillars have a horn-like appendage protruding upward on the last segment of their body.
After the caterpillar has eaten its fill and is fully grown, it drops to the ground, spins a loose cocoon and pupates, partially protected by leaf litter. So, that leaf litter that gardeners and lawn maintenance crews so diligently clear away is where Clearwing Hummingbird Moths spend the winter. It illustrates the importance of leaving leaf litter on the ground.(See: Insects in Winter)
The pupae spends the entire winter hidden in the leaf litter and emerges as an adult in the spring. In short season (cooler) areas, one generation is born per year. In warmer climates there is usually more than one generation per summer.
Sphinx moth family (Sphingidae family) is the adult stage of the hornworm caterpillars, named for the “horn” or spine-like projection on the last body segment. This family includes the Tomato Hornworm we often see on our tomato plants.
I am looking forward to spotting Clearwing Hummingbird Moths here in Philadelphia. I would like to plant more Summer Phloxes and New York Ironweed to attract them to my garden. And hopefully I can take more photographs of the moth like the few I have here.
See also: Polyphemus Moth (Antheraea polyphemus) and Its’ Luminous Beauty
Moths of Philadelphia: A Checklist
Butterflies and Moths: Information Links
I live in the country surrounded by trees. I don’t have a lot of flowers. One day a few years ago my back yard was full of humming bird moths. There were hundreds of them and they were different colors. They were only here a day or so. Guess they were migrating through. I saw several last year but never saw them as thick as they were the first time. We have pink flowers we call wild sweet Williams that they liked.
What an extraordinary sight! I started Sweet William seeds last week. Maybe once the flowers bloom next year, I’ll be lucky enough to see Hummingbird Moths in my backyard, too. Thanks for sharing.
I found a large hummingbird moth on my back stairs. What does it eat?
Hi Pam – the moth sip nectar from flowers
My mistake typing on my phone – the hummingbird moths in my yard are Snowberry Clearwings. Whatever their name, they are spectacular creatures.
In my yard the leaf litter remains, and I have seen Clearwing Hummingbird moths here for several years. This year for the first time I see Cloudberry Clearwings, and also their caterpillars on Dogbane which emerged as a volunteer this spring in my meadow. This is on Long Island’s south shore; reading up on them so far says they are more common in the west? In any event it is so exciting to watch them and know they have found a good environment here.
Thanks for your comment. Wow two Clearwings species, what a treat. I saw a big moth I thought (hope) was a clearwing zooming around my garden. For me they are a sign of hope.
I see them on my butterfly bush and gooseneck loosestrife
I don’t see these moths very often. But, when I do I am always amazed with how beautiful they are. You are lucky to have them visit regularly so close to home. 🙂
36 hours ago, my wife and I didn’t know these wonderful creatures existed. We’ve seen a few since yesterday afternoon. Also, this is the 2nd year in a row that I didn’t clear my yard of leaves until late April. After reading your blog, I wonder if there is a connection.
Bill & Wanda
Hi, Bill and Wanda
I am glad I could help.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the moth overwintered in the leaf litter in your yard. They spend the winter as a cocoon. Perhaps the moth was a larvae on a nearby honeysuckle, hawthorn, cherry, snowberry, or plum. These plants are the larval hostplants.
or….perhaps…it migrated in.
I have seen several of these moths on a purple sage at work, imitating bumble bees. In fact two years ago two appeared from no where. I named them Jet and Prop. Jet was smaller and faster. Prop was bigger and slower and more like a prop driven aircraft =)
Then after two days they disappeared.
I live in Vermont and these moths came thru the valley I live in at the same time as the flocks of Geese appear over head and the monarch butterflies come by flying south.
I have to suggest that these moths might migrate south at least even if they don’t live to fly back north. a half cycle migration?
I love these moths ! I have seen the green hummingbird moth too and they are amazing critters =)
Hi, Thomas – the first time I saw these moths I was speechless. It’s like they should be in the tropics and in a David Attenborough documentary.
The importance of leaf cover can’t be overstated. it’s so important
You are so right. I haven’t seen too many Clearwing Hummingbird Moths since this post. But plenty of Hummingbirds.
I’m kind of freaked out right now by how much it looks like a lobster. I feel like my worldview has been rearranged. 😀
Whoever is creating the creatures for Earth, definitely has a wicked sense of humor.