Ask a Local Master Gardener: Winged wonders are pollinators

  • A Galium sphinx moth (Hyles gallii) on a verbena bloom. FOR THE GAZETTE/PRISCILLA TOUHEY

For the Gazette
Published: 8/22/2019 11:04:35 AM

Q: There is something that looks like a small hummingbird flying around my garden at dusk, but it doesn’t seem to have feathers. It likes my pollinator plants. Any idea what it might be? –N.B., Whately

A: I am so glad you asked this question, N.B., because I think you and I might be enjoying visits from the same type of winged wonder. See if the below sounds similar to your situation.

I have two front patio planters each containing a Verbena bonariensis plant in full, purple bloom on wavy wands. Right around dusk every night these past couple weeks, a small little flying creature — sometimes two or four — comes zipping along, hovering hummingbird-style by the verbena’s blooms to sip nectar with a straw-like proboscis similar to that of a butterfly. It quickly flits from flower head to flower head and finally zooms away in a blur of rapidly-fluttering wings. The observer is left wondering what just performed that spectacular fly by. The flyer looks about half the size of a hummingbird, but seems to act the same.

Years ago, I came across this same creature and learned that it is a type of moth called a sphinx moth. You may also see it called a hawk moth or type of sphinx moth named, appropriately, a hummingbird moth. These common names get used interchangeably, so they can be a bit confusing. Using the scientific name helps keep information straight.

Sphinx moths (of the family Sphingidae) have heavy bodies with long, narrow front wings typically spanning between 2-6 inches, and shorter hind wings. They come in a wide variety of body and wing colors and patterns ranging from muted brown to deep pink and solids to stripes. They tend to feed at dusk and dawn and enjoy plants we know to be pollinator plants, such as verbena and butterfly bush.

Hummingbird moths (genus Hemaris spp.) are a type of sphinx moth. Some of these fun flyers have clear wing patches. There are two kinds common to Massachusetts. One is the olive-backed, red-brown bellied Hummingbird Clearwing moth. The other is the yellow and black bodied Snowberry Clearwing moth. They tend to prefer daytime feeding. Their bodies are about 2-2½ inches long with those same wide sphinx wings. A hummingbird is typically 3-4 inches long with a similar wingspan.

The caterpillar of these lovely moths, rather surprisingly, is the hornworm. The hornworm gets a bad reputation from the garden pest bully known as the tomato hornworm. Most hornworms are benign, so take pause when you see one before you flick it away and know it might turn into one of these beneficial pollinators. Once again, nature transforms something often considered off-putting into something beautiful.

UMass Amherst offers helpful links for insect identification on its website, ag.umass.edu.

Nice job paying attention to your pollinator visitors! Thanks for asking a (local) Master Gardener, N.B.

Have a gardening dilemma? Please send questions, along with your name/initials and community, to the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association at AskAMasterGardener@wmmga.org. One question will be answered per week. wmmga.org

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