9 Facts about Hawk Moths – the Most Underrated Pollinators

Hawk moths known as sphinx moths are a member of the moth family (Lepidoptera). They can be found in a wide range of habitats around the world. You can barely see them unless they are hovering around the light, such as a street light or porch light. Despite being “invisible” in your eyes, hawk moths play an important role in the ecosystem. Here are some hawk moth facts you don’t believe.

Hawk Moths
Scientific name: Sphingidae
Kingdom: Animal
Class: Insects
Order: Lepidoptera
Phylum: Arthropod

1. Hawk moths have colorful appearance

Sphinx moths are typically huge and heavy-bodied, with a long and pointed abdomen. Their forewings are typically long and pointed, some species will have angled or uneven edges forewings instead. These wings are colorful and large with the size from 3 to 20 cm. Some sphinx moths lack scales on their wings, which makes them look like big bumblebees.

Moth wings, like butterflies, have minute scales that make them slippery to the touch. If you’ve ever held or attempted to catch a moth or a butterfly, you will feel the “powder” or “dust” on your fingertips. The dust is the scales.

These hawk months have strong muscles for flight and beat their wings quickly. The antennas gradually widen and eventually narrow toward the tip. They have a proboscis (mouth tube or tongue) to suck up nectar from flowers, some species have a long one to take nectar from deep corolla flowers.

Most sphinx moths are nocturnal, however, some are active during the day, especially during dawn and dusk. These day-active ones frequently imitate bees or hummingbirds by hovering around flowers and eating on nectar.

Moths aren’t all brown or white. Many moths come in a variety of colors and patterns, some even brighter and more intriguing than butterflies. They can have many colors such as red, brown, green, and purple…

2. Hawk moths are attracted to light

Most night-active moths are attracted to light, and hawk moths are not an exception. This phenomenon is called positive phototaxis. However, some species are negatively phototactic. They are repulsed by the light, such as the Old Lady moth (Mormo maura).

Hawk moths are atratted to lights

There are some theories to explain this. “Using moonlight for orientation” is one of them. According to this theory, hawk moths use the moonlight as a navigation signal. They always fly over it. However, because moonlight is further, hawk moths will fly into artificial light. Another argument says that moths become overstimulated by man-made light and lose control.

There’s nothing for sure right now. It’s possible that both ideas are correct for different moths, or they could be all incorrect. There are more than 1400 recognized species worldwide and they all have diverse behaviors.

3. Hawk moths are specific feeders

What does hawk moth eat?

Hawk moth caterpillars consume a wide variety of host plants, including woody and herbaceous plants. But they don’t eat the same plants, each species has specific ideal host plants. Some hank moths just feed members of the tobacco, potato, or potato family. While others can only eat rose-family trees like cherry or apple.

Due to the specific diet, some sphinx moths are named after their favorite food. You can recognize some familiar names like walnut sphinx, snowberry clearwing, four-horned elm sphinx, grapevine sphinx, or wild cherry sphinx.

Adult Sphinx moths, instead of eating plants, feed flower nectar. They use their long tongues to suck nectar from flowers with long throats. Their diet consists of moon vine, lilac, honeysuckle, thistles, moon vine, clovers… Different species feed on nectar at different times of day: in the morning, at noon, at night, and even at twilight.

Besides flowers, some species eat eye secretions while death head hawk moths steal bee honey. With a tough cuticle and muscular skin, the death head hawk moths can bear the bee stings. When sneaking into the beehive, they emit a bee-like perfume that deters bees from attacking them. This makes it simpler for the moths to steal honey.

4. Life cycle of a hawk moth

Hawk moths don’t live a long time. Their lifespan is about 10-30 days. However, it doesn’t matter because they produce numerous generations every year.

By releasing a pheromone from the tip of their tail gland, females can easily attract males. After breeding, the females will lay eggs singly on host plants. These hawk moth eggs are usually smooth, greenish, and translucent. Depending on the species and environmental factors, larvae might hatch in a matter of days or weeks.  

Sphingid caterpillars have sturdy bodies and a medium to large size (about 3.5 in or 9 cm long. Their bodies are typically hairless and tubercule-free. Most species will have 5 pairs of pro-legs and feature a “horn” at the apex of the abdomen.

hawk moth caterpillars are sometimes referred to as “hornworms” because they have a hard, sharp horn on their back. They frequently rest with the thorax pointed into the air and the head turned downward. This position reminds us of ancient Egyptian sphinx statues.

When reaching the final stage, the caterpillar pupates, their pupa is about 5 cm long. Sometimes, it transforms into the adult stage. Although some Sphingid larvae spin cocoons in leaf litter, the majority pupate on the soil. Hawk moths overwinter as pupae in areas where winter occurs.

5. Hawk moths are fast

Hawk moths are the fastest flying moths in the world, they can reach speeds up to 35 m.p.h.

With a long wingspan of 12 cm, a few inches long and light weight, adult hawk moths can quickly in the air. Their estimated flying speed is 12 miles per hour (19 kph).

Hawk moths are among the Fastest Flying Insects, you may find other fast insects below:

Thanks to the frequent diet, the Sphinx moths have enough energy to fly at fast speeds. Not only that, they can twist their body in the air, fly sideways and fly quickly from flower to flower to feed. Without landing, they can fly, hover, and seek nectar flowers.

6. There’re more than 1300 hawk moth species

There are over 1450 recognized species of Sphinx moths in the Sphingidae family. And they’re all harmless to humans, they’re not poisonous or evil. Here are some of them:

Hummingbird hawk moth (Macroglossum stellatarum): Unlike most hawk moths, this moth feed during the day. Thanks to the long proboscises, it can eat nectar from flowers with deep throats. Like a hummingbird, a hummingbird moth will hover in front of the bloom, flap its wings forcefully and fast, to drink nectar.

Elephant hawk-moth (Deilephila elpenor) or large elephant hawk moth comes with golden-olive color with brilliant pink lines on the wings and body. The combination of these colors makes it looks like a trunk of an elephant; that’s why it’s named so. The species can make itself appear larger and emphasize its eyespots to protect itself from predators. This species is usually mistaken with the small elephant hawk moth which is smaller and yellower.

Eyed hawk moth scientific name is Smerinthus ocellatusYou cannot see the eyespots on its body when it is resting because the forewings conceal them. Those spots will appear when the moth is threatened and may frighten a prospective predator. This will allow the moth to flee.

Five-spotted hawk moth (Manduca quinquemaculata)You can easily recognize this 5 spotted hawk moth by its colors. There are about 5 to 6 pairs of yellow bands on its abdomen. Its hindwing is brown and white banded while the forewing is a hazy brown and gray.

Oleander hawk-moth (Daphnis nerii), or army green moth: Its wing colors are a mash-up of green hues ranging from mild to olive to dark green. It looks like military camouflage fatigues. As a result, this type of hawk moth is also known as an Army Green Moth.

Modest sphynx moth (Pachysphinx modesta) is the largest and most common hawk moths. It can be found from coast to coast in southern Canada or throughout most of the United States. You can see this moth at night, from June to July. During the day, it often sleeps or is inactive. 

Death’s head hawk moth (Acherontia species) is quite rare. It has a giant size with a skull-like pattern on its abdomen. When being disturbed, it can scream. As the name, this Sphinx species is believed to be a sign of death.

Privet hawk moth (Sphinx ligustri) is the biggest hawk moth in the UK with a wingspan of 9 – 12 cm. It has a black and pink striped abdomen and hindwings that are not always visible. The brightness of the pink will fluctuate.

Poplar hawk moth (Laothoe populi): If being agitated, this moth flashes reddish-brown spots on its underwings. When resting, its abdomen is curled up, and the hindwings are more forward than the forewings.

Lime hawk moth (Mimas tiliae) has a distinct appearance. Its wing shape, patterns, and pink and green coloration distinguish it from other hawk moths found in the UK.

7. Hawk moths play an important role in the ecosystem

Doing the same “job” (pollinate) as bees and butterflies, but hawk moths are so underrated.

Having the long proboscises as well as the ability to go far, Sphinx moths are perfect for pollinating. When sucking nectar, a hawk moth will pick up pollens by its proboscis. As the moth travels along its eating route, the pollen can be dispersed to flowers up to 18 kilometers away.

Although not pollinating food crops, hawk moths are still important for many native plants. Without them, many plants will no longer exist. Their diversity and unique ecosystems will change forever.

Plants and hawkmoths have adapted to prefer one another. The moths with long proboscises can access the nectar of the long-throat flowers. On the other hand, the plant’s pollens could be brought to the same types of plants on the moth’s future feeding trips. The pollination has more chances to be successful thanks to this association.

Many plants, such as The red-flowering Puerto Rican higo chumbo cactus or the spiky Egger’s century plant, that hawk moths eat are in danger of extinction because of deforestation and tourists.

8. Hawk moths are under pressure

Hawk moths carry pollen further than bees, butterflies, or birds. And they are more durable than other insects. This allows plant populations to survive in the event of habitat loss. However, hawk moths, like all pollinators, are affected by global warming, introduced species, and chemicals. This means that their co-dependent plants will be endangered too.

Pollinators protect a variety of environments. We will no longer see gorgeous flowers in the wild and ecosystem diversity may decrease if there are no hawk moths.



9. Hawk moths have many ways to defend themselves from predators

Sphinx moths are a tasty meal for many predators like birds or spiders. That’s why they have to have ways to defend, and different camouflage designs on their forewings are one of them. Some moths have black abdomens with red, yellow, orange, pink…stripes, which make them look like bumblebees. Some have patterns like a skull or eyes to scary predators. The hummingbird hawk moths and snowberry clearwings have fuzzy bumblebee-like bodies as well as clear wings to help disguise as stinging insects.

Hawk moth caterpillars have different ways to protect themselves. For example, they eat leaves containing bitter chemicals. This makes the hornworms distasteful to predators. In addition, caterpillars may attack predators like ants and parasites.

Hawk moth caterpillar expands and mimics a snake head to make predators stay away

By pushing air back and forth through a hole in its belly, the Nessus hawk moth caterpillar creates strange hissing and clicking noises. The Walnut sphinx caterpillar will push air out of its breathing holes to make a whistling squeak.

However, there are several predators that the hawk moth cannot fight off – small parasitoid braconid wasps. These litter creatures inject their eggs (typically around 150 at a time) into hawk moth bodies. The grublike larval wasps feed the caterpillar’s blood, but they do not destroy tissue. And the Sphinx caterpillar continues still live normally.  

When the wasp larvae develop to a certain level, they escape from the caterpillar, spin cocoons, and pupate. The cocoons of pupating wasps are commonly seen adhering to the skin of hornworms. When the wasps pupate, the caterpillar stops eating and dies eventually.

10. Infographic

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1 thought on “9 Facts about Hawk Moths – the Most Underrated Pollinators”

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