Hummingbird moths pollinate like bees
By Stephanie Custozzo-Barkay
OSU Extension master gardener volunteer intern
The first time I encountered one of these creatures was at my home in eastern Ohio. It was dusk, and I was in my driveway, next to a planter full of petunias. I heard a buzzing sound and thought that it was late in the day to hear a bumblebee. I looked at the insect and to my surprise, I saw what appeared to be a cross between a moth and a hummingbird.
To see some pictures and view more details about these insects, visit birdmoth site at OSU.
This was the late 1980s and I had grown up with the mutation theories concerning all the chemicals we use and radiation exposure. I thought, “The two species had interbred!”
Then, reality hit. I was a person of science. There was no way a bird and insect can interbreed.
Since then, thanks to the internet and fact-based, university research, I have become more versed on the various species of hummingbird moth.
The name itself is just a nickname, as many species of moths are referred to as hummingbird moths.
The most commonly loved is a clearwing moth, Hemaris thysbe, but there are many other types you will see in the landscape.
Most people never notice them because they assume it is a bumblebee that they hear.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, hummingbird moths are plump, and if you look closely at their tail, the tip opens into a fan.
They are indeed insects, and they fly and move the same as hummingbirds.
As they search for food, their flying abilities help them stay suspended in front of flowers. While suspended, their long tongs unroll to get to the nectar in the flowers.
Another similarity to hummingbirds is the noise you hear when they are near. This “hum” can also sound like some type of bee until you listen a little closer.
Unlike most moths, these insects feed in the daytime. This means they are diurnal.
They lay eggs on the underside of leaves. They prefer honeysuckle and teasel as host plants to lay their eggs.
The caterpillars have a horn at their rear end and are commonly green, helping them blend in among the leaves. When they are fully grown they drop to the ground, spin a loose cocoon and pupate, partially protected by leaf litter. That leaf litter provides a shelter to this beautiful pollinator.
In Ohio, there is only one generation per year. The pupa spends the whole winter well-hidden and the adult does not emerge until the next spring.
Some adults emerge in early spring, when bluebells are in bloom. But they are active in the summer when phlox, bee balm, honeysuckle and verbena are at their peak. They love my petunias (all colors) and morning glories as well.
So the next time you are outside, look for these creatures. They will fascinate and delight you. Remember, have fun in the garden.