Spectacular Sphinx Moths

Jill Staake

If you’re a gardener, chances are you may have come across one of these at some point while digging in the dirt:

It’s a sphinx moth pupa! It’s quite big, several inches long and thicker than my thumb, and the segmented end tends to wiggle when you touch it. The “handle” on the right side is actually a sheath protecting the developing proboscis – that certainly gives you an idea of the size of the moth that will emerge.

Sphinx Moth caterpillars often startle gardeners from their sheer size, often 4 – 5 inches in length and vividly-colored. Depending on the species, you’ll find them eating just about any kind of vegetation – including tomatoes. Yup, the dreaded tomato hornworm is actually the larva of a sphinx moth. Due to their size, these caterpillars can do a lot of damage, and gardeners sometimes view them as serious pests.

OK, so admittedly these creatures haven’t seemed all that spectacular so far. Let’s take a look at them in adult moth form to see what all the fuss is about. First up, the Tersa Sphinx (Xylophanes tersa), which always looks to me as though it’s been carved out of wood. This one is newly-emerged from its pupa casing, which you can see on the table behind it. Tersas are night-flyers, feeding on nectar.

On the left below is a Small-Eyed Sphinx (Paonias myops). Top right is a Gaudy Sphinx (Eumorpha labruscae), which has amazing pink coloration on its lower wings. Bottom right is the White-Lined Sphinx (Hyles lineata). All of these have a wingspan of up to 4 inches and are active at night, feeding from nectar flowers.

This last one might be the most familiar – the Hummingbird Clearwing or Hummingbird Sphinx (Hemaris thysbe). This moth is active during the day, so many people are familiar with it. As the name indicates, it’s sometimes confused with a hummingbird, but a second look usually clears things up. Click here to learn more about these moths.

There are hundreds of sphinx moths around the world, and these are just a small sampling. Most fly at night, and a great time to look for them is during the evening after the sun sets but before it’s completely dark. They’re especially drawn to light-colored blooms in the garden.

Have you encountered sphinx moth caterpillars or pupa before? Tell us in the comments!

  1. Cheery Chickadee says

    I found a green caterpillar with white stripes like the one above, but it was all green except those stripes and had a poke on its rear end. It was eating on a banana pepper, but did not touch the peppers. Do you know what it was?

  2. DebbieWolfe says

    I used to see these on my aunt Eva’s farm in western South Dakota. They were attracted to her moon flowers, and they would be gathering the nectar from the flowers in the early evening. (That’s when the blooms would open up.) Very interesting creatures.

  3. Lauren Wade says

    The first time I encountered them, I was sitting on my front porch one night. I thought they were hummingbirds but could not understand why they were out at nighttime. I went inside and got a flashlight. There were about 5 or 6 of them enjoying my cleome. I went to my internet to find out what they were. They are amazing.

  4. Katy And Bob Petri Mchugh says

    They always look intimidating, like the Cicada Killer! I just saw one on a petunia.

  5. Amanda says

    My mom and I had them zipping around our moon flowers years ago- they were huge and we did mistake them for hummingbirds at first.

  6. Kathy Johnson Callahan says

    I found a hummingbird Sphinx in my Sweet Williams just this week. I tried to get a good photo but it was a little blurry. I was amazed at how much it looked like an actual humming bird on first glance.

  7. Nina Jawnyj says

    I was saying to myself the other day I had not seen one in few years in my garden. Lo and behold I did get to see one during the same week. There so awsome!

  8. Lisa says

    We observed the white lined sphynx moth in our garden early in the spring and sure enough, two tomato hornworms We found in my tomatoes later in the season. As my son was working on the insect merit badge we brought them inside and fed them pinched off pieces of our indeterminate tomatoes. We worried they were dying when they stopped eating but I advised my son to wait it out. Now we have two pupa in our jar waiting. We have learned so much! The shed skin lying next to the pupa is really a cool sight and the wiggling made us think they would “hatch out” soon, but now I’m thinking not. I need to look up how long they take to change. Thank you for your informative article!

  9. Adri says

    About a month ago we saved a sphynx moth that was drowning in our pool. Last week I found a large green caterpillar on my grapevine, looked it up and discovered it was the offspring of the moth I saved, He eats about 2 or 3 whole large grape leaves a day and is about the size of my baby finger now.

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