Here in southeastern Wisconsin, it has been a banner year for sphinx moths. Also known as hawk moths or hummingbird moths, these striking insects have been swarming hanging baskets, hummingbird feeders, and late wildflowers throughout the area. The photographs, taken on Wind Point, WI, show white-lined sphinx moths (Hyles lineata), whose flexible use of host plants from grapes to primroses makes it the most common sphinx moth in North America.
Sphinx moths have a lot in common with the hummingbirds that share their nectar-sipping lifestyle. These nimble and acrobatic fliers can hover in place or zip along at a speedy 20 mph – about as fast as an Olympic sprinter. Energy from their sugar-rich diet of nectar, furry insulating scales and heat-generating muscle vibrations help sphinx moths maintain a bird-like body temperature of about 40º C, allowing them to remain active even in cold weather. Like hummingbirds, sphinx moths are also valuable pollinators.
True to their family name – Macroglossinae or “big tongue” – sphinx moths’ nectar-harvesting proboscis can be longer than their body; more than a foot long in some tropical species.
- W Cranshaw. “Hornworm and ‘Hummingbird’ Moths.” University of Colorado-Extension Fact Sheet 5.517
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- RD Stevenson et. al. “Cage Size and Flight Speed of the Tobacco Hawkmoth.” The Journal of Experimental Biology 198, 1665–1672 (1995)
- “Sphinx Moths.” Iowa State University: University Extension. 2002. Fact sheet RG210.