Moths aren’t usually high up on our list of must-see nature but here is one that captivates, fascinates and even mystifies anyone who sees it.
The hummingbird hawkmoth is every bit as exciting as it sounds and fortunately we don’t need to travel anywhere to find one because this moth comes to us. It enjoys drinking nectar from flowers found in our gardens and is often recorded at the most modest of locations including urban window-boxes. So, whilst weeding the flowerbed or relaxing in the garden this summer keep one eye out for this amazing creature.
The hummingbird hawkmoth is one of about seventeen hawkmoths which regularly occur in Britain. Only nine are resident, the others, including the hummingbird hawkmoth, are regarded as migrants because they generally don’t breed here.
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What are hawkmoths?
The term ‘hawkmoth’ applies to a family of moths which are quite large but crucially are known for their swift, manoeuvrable flight. The largest hawkmoths such as the privet hawkmoth can have a wing-span of about 10cm, the hummingbird hawkmoth is about half that size but still large in comparison to most moths. The hummingbird hawkmoth isn’t remarkable for its size so much as its incredible flight, hovering beside a flower with its wings beating 80 times per second! After pausing for a split second at one flower it flits away to another in the blink of an eye and a blur of its wings.
When to spot hummingbird hawkmoths
Unlike most moths the hummingbird hawkmoth is a day-flying species, which enjoys the sun. It uses its ultra-long tongue to drink nectar from flowers just like a hummingbird uses its beak. This tongue is designed to probe deep into tubular-shaped flowers, so these moths show a preference for red valerian, buddleia, viper’s bugloss, petunia, lilac and other similarly-shaped flowers.
Such is the resemblance of this hawkmoth to a hummingbird that many people are convinced they have seen a small bird rather than a large moth. As a result this species accounts for more than its fair share of telephone calls to wildlife information services from bewildered and confused members of the public.
In flight the hummingbird hawkmoth can seem quite a colourful insect, this is because we get tantalising flickers of its hindwing and underwings which are both orange. But on many occasions I have followed one of these moths until it lands on a wall or a tree only to be surprised by its disappearing act. With its wings folded all we see is the drab greyish-brown forewings which provide an invisibility cloak of camouflage concealing it from predators and wildlife photographers!
Hummingbird hawkmoth migration and breeding
The hummingbird hawkmoth is regarded as a migrant species in the UK. As a breeding insect it is common in Southern Europe and North Africa from where it migrates northwards each year. When conditions are favourable large influxes can occur in Britain with the majority seen along the south coast, but they have been recorded across the length and breadth of the country, often in gardens.
The greatest number of records occur in August, but they can be seen from April to December, and with a gradually warming climate there have been regular records, over the last 40 years or more, of adult moths over-wintering in the south-west of Britain as well as some suspected breeding.
Encouraging hummingbird hawkmoths into your garden
As gardeners we can increase our chances of spotting one of these wonderful moths by planting its favourite flowers in sunny, sheltered corners of our garden. I have deliberately planted red valerian and buddleia, in south-facing spots, and hope to attract a good variety of butterflies as well as moths.
With an even more optimistic sense of anticipation I have even encouraged a patch of hedge bedstraw to grow in an unmown area of lawn. The caterpillars of hummingbird hawkmoths feed on the leaves of bedstraw and if they want to lay eggs in my garden I will do my best to welcome them. I know it’s unlikely that I will be able to encourage them to stay and breed but I do live in Cornwall, the number of sightings is increasing and climate change is on our side so my fingers are well and truly crossed.
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