About the size of a carpenter bee, a mysterious, 1.5-inch creature hovers like a hummingbird before flowers during the day and pokes its long proboscis into each bloom to sip nectar.

It is a hummingbird clear-wing sphinx moth, so named because it looks and hovers like hummingbirds and has clear wings in a 2-inch wingspan.

The attractive clear-wing moths are intriguing to watch whirring from blossom to blossom. I have watched them many times over the years.

There are several kinds of sphinx moths worldwide. And all of them are shaped and fly differently from “typical” moths. I commonly see two kinds of sphinx moths here in southeastern Pennsylvania: clear-wings and white-lined sphinx moths.

Sphinx moths, including the handsome clear-wings and white-lined, have characteristics in common that make them a subfamily of moths. Like all sphinx moths, clear-wings and white-lined are plump and furry all over. Each moth has four short, stiff wings it whirs rapidly to stay aloft.

These moths have large eyes with noticeable pupils; short antennae that resemble long, thin ears; and a long proboscis to draw up flower nectar, pollinating blooms in the process. When not in use, each proboscis is coiled under the head.

Clear-wings and white-lined inhabit meadows and flower gardens across much of the United States. There are two generations of each species a year, and the latter generation of larvae overwinter as pupae in the protective soil.

White-lined sphinx moths are nocturnal and attractive in their chocolate-and-white-striped coloring. And each one has pink-and-black-striped back wings. Each has a 3-inch wingspan, and their wings are swept back when at rest.

Sphinx moths are called that because their caterpillars, when at rest, hold their front ends up with their heads curved a bit under their bodies, which reminded somebody of the Great Sphinx of Giza. That position makes the larvae look larger than they are, and menacing, which intimidates birds who would eat sphinx larvae.

Sphinx moth caterpillars have a projecting growth on the upper rear of their abdomens that resembles a thorn. Those “thorns” also intimidate birds.

I enjoy seeing diurnal clear-wings and nocturnal white-lined sphinx moths with a flashlight, zipping among flowers and hovering in front of each one to sip sugary nectar.

They add more life and beauty to flowering meadows and gardens that we all can enjoy, if we know what to look for and are willing to watch for them.


Clyde McMillan-Gamber is a retired Lancaster County Parks naturalist.

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