gill mushrooms. Photo by Donna L. Long

Clearwing Hummingbird Moth and Its Life Cycle

Hummingbird Clearwing Moth (Hemaris thysbe) on New York Ironweed
Hummingbird Clearwing Moth (Hemaris thysbe) on New York Ironweed

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 ClearwingHummingbird 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.

Hummingbird Clearwing Moth (Hemaris thysbe) on New York Ironweed
Hummingbird Clearwing Moth (Hemaris thysbe) on New York Ironweed

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.

Hummingbird Clearwing Moth (Hemaris thysbe) on New York Ironweed
Hummingbird Clearwing Moth (Hemaris thysbe) on 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.

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.

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