Sphinx Moths, the Stars of the Evening
Sphinx moths tend to appear in the later afternoon and evening hours, and often visit night-blooming flowers.
National Moth Week has begun! 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. Some sphinx moths are diurnal, which means they fly during the day; others are crepuscular, meaning they prefer to fly at dusk and dawn.
Attract sphinx moths to your garden by planting flowers that are their best in the evening and at night, like moonflowers or four-o-clocks. (Some squash species are night-blooming and are exclusively pollinated by moths.) Here are some of the species you might find feeding on flowers in the evening or tucked into quiet corners during the day.
Pluto Sphinx Moth (Xylophanes pluto)
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 (Eumorpha pandorus) looks similar and is found throughout the eastern U.S.
Small-Eyed Sphinx Moth (Paonias myops)
The Small-Eyed Sphinx 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.
Hummingbird Clearwing Moth (Hemaris thysbe)
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. Learn more here.
Banded Sphinx Moth (Eumorpha fasciatus)
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.
Tersa Sphinx Moth (Xylophanes tersa)
The Tersa Sphinx is sometimes called the “wooden moth”, and it does indeed look as though it’s been carved from wood. This moth is found in the southern U.S. west to Arizona, and north to Massachusetts. Caterpillars of this species may feed on penta plants in butterfly gardens.
Mournful Sphinx Moth (Enyo lugubris)
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.