Hummingbird Moths

It looks and acts like a hummingbird but it’s really a moth – wait, what?

That’s right, there are at least three hummingbird moth species (Lepidoptera: Sphingidae) in Michigan that might be visiting your flowers: hummingbird clearwing Hemaris thysbe, snowberry clearwing Hemaris diffinis, and slender clearwing Hemaris gracilis. They mimic hummingbirds and are fascinating to watch!We often get asked, how do I tell if I have a queen, because I can't find her?

Hummingbirds are typically 3.5 inches long, weigh 1/8 ounce, have plain, feathered wings that beat an average of 52 times per second, and use a long needle-like beak with a forked tongue to gather nectar. Hummingbird moths are about 1-2 inches in length, have antennae, a long proboscis to gather nectar, and depending on the species can have almost clear or colorful wings that can beat 70 times per second in the same figure-eight pattern as the hummingbird. Hummingbirds can live 3-5 years while hummingbird moths live just 8-9 months or a little longer.

They both hover and fly in different directions, they are comparably very zippy, visit similar plants for nectar, and both have fanned tails. The hummingbird moth is an insect that begins life as a tiny egg and morphs through its life stages as egg, larvae, caterpillar, chrysalis, moth. The caterpillars of each of the Hemaris species pupate in cocoons spun in debris at the soil level and once they hatch, their food sources as an adult may include lilacs, lantana, orange hawkweed, berry bushes, bee balm, phlox, and summer lilacs – also known as butterfly bush. North America has four Hemaris species – the three listed above and the fourth, Hemaris thetis, is only found in the western half of the US and in British Columbia, Canada.

While there are large moths that may be seen sipping nectar from flowers (and sometimes feeders), the purist will say that only the species of the genus Hemaris are the true hummingbird moths. There are other moths such as the nessus sphinx Amphion floridensis that looks very similar the Hemaris species except that A. floridensis has solid-colored wings. The moth that emerges from the often-reviled tomato hornworm is the five-spotted hawkmoth and is referred to by some, as a hummingbird moth.

To attract hummingbird moths and other pollinators, try planting several butterfly and snowberry bushes together. It may take a while for the hummingbird moths to find new food sources but once they’ve arrived, the chance to observe these beautiful insects is worth the wait!We often get asked, how do I tell if I have a queen, because I can't find her?

If you cannot find your queen, don't worry, we rarely see her anyways. The best way to tell if she is ok, is by looking for signs of her. If you have eggs in the bottoms of cells somewhere in the hive, then it's a pretty safe bet that she is alive and well. Remember, eggs hatch into a little “C” shape larva after only 3 days, so if you see eggs, then the queen has been in area in the last three days.

The eggs are tiny, so maybe you are having a hard time finding them. Don't worry, with a little observation, you can still ensure the queen is in there and laying.

Look for the larva; the little “C” shape slug looking larva at the bottoms of the cells. These are much easier to find and although seeing them the first time you check the hive doesn't guarantee your queen is still in there and active, seeing them every time you check does mean she is ok. After the eggs hatch at 3 days, they will be uncapped, in their larva stage for about 7 days before the bees come along and put a cap over the cell. So, if you see open cells with “C” shaped larva in the bottom EVERY time you check your hive, then all is well.

(picture shows "C" shaped larva in uncapped cells.)

When to worry?

When all you see is capped brood or nothing at all in the cells as far as eggs, larva or brood, then you have a problem. Call a professional if you need help with what to do next.

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