Spectacular Sphinx Moths

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

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!

Jill Staake
Jill lives in Tampa, Florida, and writes about gardening, butterflies, outdoor projects and birding. When she's not gardening, you'll find her reading, traveling and happily digging her toes into the sand on the beach.