I first saw these in Essex, England, and then again while here in Portugal, and I was truly amazed – I could have sworn it was a small bird, indeed, even a hummingbird, although I knew these weren’t found in either England or Portugal. Even their darting movement from one flower to another is reminiscent of a hummingbird.
They are big – with a wingspan of maybe 2”, and will certainly get your attention if you see one, as they hover over flowers and take nectar with what looks like a beak - and because they are hovering, you can get a good look at them before they move on to their next location.
Hummingbird hawk-moths belong to the Sphingidae family which share the ability to fly very fast, hover and have a long tongue. Their genus name is Macroglossum, meaning ‘long-tongued’.
The hummingbird hawk-moth has greyish-brown forewings, bright orange hindwings, and a greyish body with a broad, black-and-white 'tail', which are actually elongated hairs. Grey and nondescript when not in flight, if I am honest, but its hovering flight is where the colour is revealed - it flutters its wings so quickly that it can appear orange, and it makes an audible hum – with a wing speed of 70 beats a second, the wings will be just a blur if you catch sight of one in flight.
It doesn’t actually have a beak - it’s a long proboscis that it uses to siphon out the sweet sticky nectar from within flowers, and this proboscis is roughly 1” long - nearly as long as the moth’s body - and is kept tightly rolled up when not being used. It dines out on Jasmine, Buddleia, Nicotiana, Tulip, Red Valerian, Phlox and many others.
It has weird eyes, and you get the feeling it is following you with them, but this is just an illusion. Their eyes are made up of many facets arranged in a rough hemispherical pattern, with each facet containing a crystalline lens and a number of photoreceptor cells. This allows the moth to see in many directions at once, although in much less detail than the human eye. The dark spot that seems to follow your movement is actually a patch of facets absorbing light coming from your direction. As you move relative to the moth’s eye, the patch seems to move, when in fact you are seeing a new patch of light-absorbing facets, and because it prefers to feed in bright daylight, it’s developed eyes with more photoreceptors in the centres, allowing it to see more detail. This probably evolved to help the moth judge distances when using its ‘straw’ to take nectar from flowers that are moving about when they are feeding.
They don’t sting, and don’t pose any threat to humans, and sadly only live around 7 months, but during that time, however, the female may lay a brood of up to 200 eggs two or even three times, and get this – each egg will be laid on a separate plant! The adults can be found in Africa, Europe and Asia, from Portugal to Japan, and it breeds mainly in warmer climates (southern Europe, North Africa, and points east). It overwinters as an adult in crevices among rocks, trees, and buildings, and on very warm days it may emerge to feed in mid-winter. In the southern parts of its range, the hummingbird hawk-moth is highly active even when temperatures are high, and body temperatures above 45 °C have been measured. This is among the highest recorded for hawk-moths, and near the limit for insect muscle activity.
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