Usually, I see them in the late afternoon – hovering, flitting, maneuvering around, over, and into blossoms of hosta, lantana, or butterfly bush. At first one, then another, moving cautiously then accelerating to another bloom, and suddenly disappearing in a flash of red, green, yellow, or black. Hummingbirds or bumblebees they are not. Moths they are. They appear to buzz but perhaps we expect that and think we hear it. We see the helicopter-like hovering and immediately think hummingbird as our eyes are deceived. Here is an insect that mimics other species. Why? Perhaps it confuses the senses of predators like large birds or even a praying mantis clad in camo green and hiding among the nearby leaves of sweet-smelling blossoms. Maybe, as some entomologists believe, the mimic is a product of co-evolution where several distinct species develop similar survival traits at the same time. I personally like to think that the mimic moth watched the hummingbird in action and thought hovering was a cool thing to do so he started practicing until he became an expert on veering right or left from a stationary position. Whatever the reason, the Clearwing Moth is an expert “hoverer” just like a bumblebee or a hummingbird.
In Georgia, we have dozens of varieties of Hummingbird Moths and in fact, there used to be many more named varieties until scientists
discovered that what appeared to be different moths were actually the same variety with different color patterns. If experts can be confused, then I don’t feel so bad when I struggle to tell the difference between two Moths competing for the same hosta bloom.
The first thing, other than hovering, I noticed when I looked closely at this fascinating creature was how large it was. Even though a few had yellow and black bands, it was larger than the typical slow-flying bumblebee which I thought it was at first. And – it appeared to have a tail similar to a small bird.
These are not feathers, but hairs, but I was easily fooled as the moth is still for only a second or two before flitting to a more promising bloom. Do they drink the nectar so quickly or can they smell that this blossom is empty? The decision is made quickly just like the bee or hummingbird and if several duds are encountered in a row, then off it goes to my neighbor’s garden where the grass is always greener and the flowers sweeter.
Let’s look more closely at the Clearwing Moth or Hummingbird mimic. If you are an expert photographer, as I am not, then you could capture our moth in all its glory. In a still shot, it is “insect” without a doubt. Three body parts, six legs, two antennae, two eyes – all contribute to the classic definition of insect. The colors are mesmerizing and one wonders how Mr. Moth selects his wardrobe each morning from his closet full of colorful jackets, furs, and accessories!
The name “Clearwing” becomes apparent once you have slowed down his incessant fluttering to a still shot. His proboscis is long and useful for a quick snorkel in a nectar puddle. Considering everything in a static photo, he is insect through and through, but static he is not and hence the confusion with bee and bird.
Like any good insect, he must come from an egg, become a caterpillar, and have a pupating stage. The egg is a green dot and not commonly found but the intermediate stage is the infamous hornworm – one of the largest tomato eating, tobacco chewing caterpillars found in the garden. Our clearwing, however, is found on native species of plants not cultivated in our garden. The tomato hornworm does pupate into a similar moth that we never see in the day – a Sphinx Moth.
Once again, there are over a hundred varieties of this species and most are nocturnal but not our hummingbird mimic.
Next time you notice the flitting and flirting among the blossoms and it is too fast for a bumble bee or not quite a hummingbird, take a close look and admire this jewel of nature. Perhaps it is the beautiful Clearwing or another variety of pollinator. But the seconds you stop and watch will be rewarded with a greater appreciation of why you are a gardener. It’s not just the flowers or the vegetables; it is also the everchanging variety of life that makes those flowers and vegetables happen!