When my 3 year-old granddaughter was up for the weekend a couple of weeks ago, she enjoyed watching the hummingbirds flying around the petunias. What she thought were hummingbirds were actually large insects that look a lot like hummingbirds. They were sphinx moths that have rapid wing beats and a long proboscis that allows them to feed from the flowers just like hummingbirds. At three, it is still hard to understand how two very similar looking but very different animals just aren't the same thing hummingbirds.
Since that weekend, we have been treated to as many as five sphinx moths feeding around the flower beds at home. They are fun to watch but difficult to photograph. At least with my camera equipment they are difficult to capture. I worked hard to get a good photo to offer up with this week's column. I ended up with a multitude of blurry photos. Finally, I got one that turned out pretty well.
Sphinx moths have a couple of other nicknames. Some people call them hawk moths. And, of course, hummingbird moths for the obvious reason discussed earlier. Worldwide, there are about 1,450 species.
Photo by Kevin Williams
Sphinx moths, like other insects, go through several stages of development. Females lay translucent, greenish, flattened, smooth eggs, usually singly on the host plants. Egg development time varies from three to 21 days. From eggs, the larva hatch and begin eating leaves a lot of leaves! At this stage the caterpillars are called hornworms because of the characteristic horn that is present on the last segment of their body. Some hornworm caterpillars can grow several inches long and this horn can serve as quite a deterrent to predators.
After about eight weeks, the hornworms are fully developed. They burrow into the ground like those cicadas and cicada killers that we talked about a couple of week ago. After they burrow in to the ground, the caterpillars pupate (produce a hard covering) and over winter in that form. They emerge as a moth the following summer.
Watch for these hummingbirds of the insect world around the flowers. They won't be around much longer. Then that life cycle will be complete.