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Hawk Moths: Who are our pollinators? (Part three)

Updated: Jan 31

By Julie Reiff 

A hummingbird clearwing moth drinks from verbena flowers
A hummingbird clearwing moth uses its long proboscis (longer than its body) to reach for nectar deep in these verbena flowers. Doesn’t it look just like a hummingbird? Photo by Julie Reiff

Hawk moths or sphinx moths are another mimic in the garden. And yes, moths are pollinators, although not intentionally. Their long nectar-gathering proboscis (longer than their bodies) does carry pollen from flower to flower. They are especially attracted to blossoms that are pale or white, heavy with fragrance, and have copious nectar and open in the evening when bees and other pollinators have quit for the night.

Two lovely examples known as clearwing moths were regular visitors to the Habitat For All Garden this summer. The hummingbird clearwing (Hemaris thysbe) hovers much like its namesake and can even sound the same, although it’s a little smaller at roughly 1½ inches. The snowberry clearwing (Hemaris diffinis) is sometimes called the flying lobster because of its tube shaped body and the fan-shaped tuft on its tail. It is also sometimes called the bumblebee moth for its yellow and black segments.

Their highly active flight means they lose many of those scales in the central part of their wing, making them appear clear. 

As moths, clearwings are in the lepidoptera (the name means scaly wings) family, along with butterflies, but their highly active flight means they lose many of those scales in the central part of their wing, making them appear clear. 

Clearwings are relatives of the tomato and tobacco hornworms, familiar to gardeners as voracious feeders. The horn-like protrusion from the hind quarters of the larval caterpillar can’t sting you but it is used to deter predators…another piece of mimicry. If you want to see these beautiful and helpful adults, the U.S. Forest Service suggests sequestering their offspring on a few plants in the corner of your garden.

A snowberry clearwing moth caterpillar
A snowberry clearwing moth caterpillar has the distinctive “horn” of the hornworm. Those spots on the side, called spiracles, are how they breathe. Photo by Julie Reiff

Where are these beauties now? In the leaf litter, of course. We can’t say it enough: Leave those leaves alone if you can. There are whole populations of pollinators in there, biding their time for another season in the garden! 

If you want to attract clearwing moths, you can plant hosts for the caterpillars—like snowberry, honeysuckle, dogbane, and viburnum. Adults are also attracted by nectar from honeysuckle and snowberry, as well as bee balm, verbena, phlox, and orange hawkweed. Try to choose natives like Lonicera sempervirens and avoid species that might be invasive.


Did you miss the earlier posts about our garden pollinators? 

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