10 Interesting Facts About Hummingbird Moths

A hummingbird moth can easily be mistaken for a hummingbird because they look and act similar. Learn more about what makes these sphinx moths unique.

hummingbird mothsCourtesy Mike Satterelli
Snowberry clearwing moth

What Is a Hummingbird Moth?

Sphinx moths are unique fliers that make many backyard gardeners say, “What was that thing?” At first glance, many think it’s a hummingbird or bumblebee. The moths feed from flowers during the day and can hover just like hummingbirds. This ability has earned them the nickname “hummingbird moth.” There are four types of hummingbird moths in North America: hummingbird clearwing moths, white-lined sphinx moths, snowberry clearwing moths and slender clearwing moths.

What Does a Hummingbird Moth Look Like?

Hummingbird moths have thick, fuzzy antennae that are wider at the top. Long hairs, not feathers, cover most of the body. They also have six legs, like all other insects. They also have clear patches on their wings. The wings of clear-winged sphinx moths, such as the snowberry clearwing, become clear soon after emerging from the cocoon. Their bodies are plump like bumblebees.

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Hummingbird Moths Are Not Birds

At a glance, hummingbird moths can easily be mistaken for their namesake. But hummingbird moths are insects, not birds. One way to tell the difference is their size. Hummingbird moths are smaller in size, at 1 to 2 inches long. Hummingbirds are typically 3 to 4 inches long.

Are Hummingbird Moths Rare?

The two most common hummingbird moths you’ll see in your garden are known as snowberry clearwings and hummingbird clearwings. Slender clearwings are rare in parts of their range.

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Sphinx Moths Are Active at Night

If you spot a hummingbird-sized flier zip through your garden late at night, you’re probably looking at a sphinx moth. These moths are active both day and night, so plant flowers that bloom after dark like moonflower to attract them.

Hummingbird moth sips nectar from a purple flower.Courtesy Roger Hatley
A hummingbird moth sips nectar in North Carolina

Hummingbird Moths Can Hover Like a Hummingbird

Hummingbird moths have a tail that opens like a fan when they’re hovering in the air to collect nectar from flowers, just like hummingbirds.

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Hummingbird Moths Are Attracted to Flowers

Plant phlox, bee balm or any other pollinator favorites in your flower garden to attract hummingbird moths. Like butterflies, hummingbird moths have a extra long proboscis to sip nectar, sometimes twice the length of their body. Sphinx moths prefer tube-shaped flowers with nectar in the base of the petals, such as columbines, nasturtiums and four-o’clocks.

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Hummingbird Moths Are Not Drawn to the Color Red

Unlike hummingbirds, hummingbird moths don’t zero in on red flowers. Tubular blooms in any color lure day-fliers, while fragrant white or light-colored blossoms hail the sphinx moth squad in the evening by both sight and scent.

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hummingbird moth caterpillarRichard Day/Daybreak Imagery
Snowberry clearwing caterpillar larva

What Do Hummingbird Moth Caterpillars Look Like?

When full-grown, the caterpillars are about the size of your little finger and are smooth with a pointy horn at the tail end. Here’s why these insects are called sphinx moths. Tickle a sphinx moth caterpillar and the larva will rear up defensively, curling its head while the rest of its body remains flat. This is the same posture taken by the mythical beasts that guard pharaohs’ tombs.

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Hummingbird Moths Are Also Known As Hawk Moths

You may know sphinx moths as hawk moths or hummingbird hawk moths, because their streamlined wings make them fast and agile fliers. They are also sometimes called bee moths or bee hawk moths.

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Kirsten Schrader
Kirsten is the executive editor of Birds & Blooms. She's been with the brand in various roles since 2007. She has many favorite birds (it changes with the seasons), but top picks include the red-headed woodpecker, Baltimore oriole and rose-breasted grosbeak. Her bucket list bird is the painted bunting.