Sphinx Moths, the Stars of the Evening Garden
A sphinx moth tends to appear in the late afternoon and evening, and often visits night-blooming flowers. Here are some types of sphinx moths to know.
Some of my favorite moths to look for are sphinx moths, members of the family Sphingidae. These large moths are spectacular flyers, with streamlined bodies and wings evolved for speed and agility. They are one of only a few creatures capable of hovering in flight, like bats and hummingbirds, and are sometimes mistaken for the latter. Like their close cousins, butterflies, sphinx moths feed using their proboscis, a coiled tube on the front of their heads that they uncurl and dip deep into flowers for nectar. A sphinx moth’s proboscis may be more than 11 inches long on some large tropical species. The wingspan of sphinx moths varies by species. Big poplars spread their wings 4 to 6 inches, while smaller sphinxes, like hummingbird clearwings, open to about 2 inches.
Some sphinx moths are diurnal, which means they fly during the day. 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. Attract sphinx moths by planting flowers that are their best in the evening and at night, like moonflowers or four-o-clocks. Some squash species are also night-blooming and are exclusively pollinated by moths.
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There are hundreds of sphinx moths around the world. Here are some of the species you might find feeding on your flowers.
Courtesy Barbara Fisher
Rustic Sphinx Moth
That bold, beautiful pattern of black, white and gray is characteristic of the rustic sphinx moth. The large size and streamlined shape mark this as a member of the sphinx moth family. This is mainly a southern species, rarely wandering as far north as Canada. Fast-flying adults are active mostly at night, resting in the daytime. Caterpillars feed on the leaves of several plants, including bignonia, jasmine and Cape honeysuckle.
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Pluto Sphinx Moth
Pluto sphinx moths (shown above) are olive green, but their hindwings show a flash of orange when they fly. This species is mainly confined to Florida and Texas, but the even showier pandora sphinx moth looks similar and is found throughout the eastern U.S.
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Small-Eyed Sphinx Moth
The small-eyed sphinx moth is more common in the eastern half of the U.S., but can be found all the way west to California. Like many sphinx moths, the small-eyed sphinx flies at dusk, but also continues to fly all night long.
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Hummingbird Clearwing Moth
The hummingbird clearwing or hummingbird sphinx moth is active during the day, so many people are familiar with it. This is one of the diurnal (day-flying) moths, and frequently fools people into thinking it’s an actual hummingbird. Once you get a close look, though, you’ll see the proboscis and antennae up front and realize you’re actually looking at one of the most famous sphinx moths. Hummingbird clearwings are found throughout the eastern half of the U.S. and Canada. Attract them with the same flowers you’d use to attract butterflies. Though not a bird (or a plane), sphinx moths move quickly. Snowberry clearwings have been clocked flying more than 30 mph.
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Banded Sphinx Moth
The banded sphinx is primarily found in the southeast, but sometimes strays far to the north. This moth feeds from flowers once the sun goes down, but can often be observed at dusk without waiting for full-on dark. Its caterpillars feed on plants in the evening primrose family, so planting those is one way to attract these sphinx moths.
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Tersa Sphinx Moth
This beautiful and streamlined creature is a tersa sphinx moth. It is sometimes called the “wooden moth”, and it does indeed look as though it’s been carved from wood. Adults may be sluggish in the daytime, but they fly around rapidly at dusk and night. When tersa sphinx moths visit gardens, they hover in front of flowers to feed, just as hummingbirds do. Caterpillars of this species feed on plants in the madder family, including pentas. Although tersa sphinx moths sometimes wander as far north as Canada, they mainly live in the tropics and in the southeastern states, from Texas to Florida and into North and South Carolina.
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Mournful Sphinx Moth
Another moth mainly found in the southeast U.S., the mournful sphinx is very dark brown in color and generally flies during the day. It’s known to make a surprisingly loud “whirring” sound from its wings.
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Gaudy Sphinx Moth
A gaudy sphinx moth looks like a green leaf until you notice the amazing coloration on its lower wings. These green sphinx moths have a wingspan of up to 4 inches and are active at night, feeding from nectar flowers. Learn how to identify a luna moth.
Courtesy of Martin Gilchrist
White-Lined Sphinx Moth
Yes, this is another one of the hummingbird moths, also known as hawk moths. Many of them take nectar by hovering in front of flowers, very much like a hummingbird. Some species are active only at night, but this one, the white-lined sphinx, will visit flowers in daylight. Its caterpillars feed on the leaves of a wide variety of host plants. It’s recognized by its striped and checkered body, white lines on the forewings, and broad pink stripe on the hindwings.
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Big Poplar Sphinx Moth
The big poplar sphinx, with wings 4 to nearly 6 inches across, has no proboscis at all! It never feeds in its adult stage but emerges only to locate a mate and start the next generation.
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Plants to Attract Sphinx Moths
Sphinx moths prefer nectar-filled, tube-shaped flowers.
- Butterfly bush
- Evening primrose
- Flowering tobacco (Nicotiana)
- Moonflower vine (Ipomoea alba)
- Poplar (Populus species, including cottonwood, poplar, aspen)
- Snowberry (Symphoricarpos species)
- Virginia creeper