Hummingbird Hawk-Moth: Habitat and Characteristics

The hummingbird sphinx is a lepidopteran insect that, due to its body shape, can be mistaken for a small bird. Do you want to know all about it? Read on!
Hummingbird Hawk-Moth: Habitat and Characteristics

Last update: 04 August, 2021

If you live somewhere in Eurasia, you may have been confused by seeing something similar to a hummingbird flying in the middle of a dry field or in town. However, it’s impossible to find one of these birds in the Mediterranean environment, as they’re eminently Neotropical. The closest thing to this bird that we have in these areas is the hummingbird hawk-moth, a lepidopteran that stands out for its appearance.

The hummingbird hawk-moth (Macroglossum stellatarum) attracts attention due to its body shape, as seen from a distance it could resemble a small bird fluttering among the flowers. If you want to know everything about this beautiful lepidoptera, we encourage you to continue reading!

Hummingbird hawk-moth habitat

The hummingbird hawk-moth has a very wide distribution range, as it can be found as far away as Portugal and Japan, including all of southern Europe, northern Africa, central Asia, India, and Indochina. It’s a species that is very common in the Iberian Peninsula, appearing in urban areas, towns and Mediterranean landscapes alike.

This lepidopteran stands out for its flying skills and is dispersed in many areas during the summer. However, it doesn’t survive well in places with low temperatures, since being ectothermic it requires environmental heat to carry out its metabolic functions. Therefore, its distribution is limited in the high altitudes and latitudes north of the Eurasian continent.

The American lepidoptera of the genus Hemaris are also known as “hummingbirds”, but they don’t belong to the same group as the species that concerns us here.

A flying hummingbird butterfly.

Physical characteristics

The hummingbird sphinx is a ditrisian lepidopteran, included in the group of both diurnal and nocturnal butterflies. In addition, it belongs to the Sphingidae family, which has about 1,450 species of sphinxes in about 200 different genera. All of these butterflies display some common physical characteristics.

Specifically, the species Macroglossum stellatarum has a wingspan of 4 to 4.5 centimeters and has a robust and plump body. The head has slightly thick antennae (they’re curved at the end and have a tiny hook) and also highlights its proboscis, a sucking device formed by long jaws that are wound in a spiral.

Beyond its head, we should note that its abdomen is black and white on its sides with a fan-tail of setae at the end. This, together with the disposition of its orange wings and its spirit, give it an appearance similar to a hummingbird. The resemblance could be due to a phenomenon of evolutionary convergence, since both animals have similar habits.

This species has three pairs of legs and a body and wings covered by scales and hairs.

Behavior of the hummingbird hawk-moth

This species is migratory, but generally doesn’t survive the winter in the cold regions where it can be found. However, as specialized portals indicate, it is the only European hummingbird hawk-moth that can successfully overcome the winter season, especially if it lives in temperate regions with mild temperatures.

It’s a diurnal lepidopteran that moves busily from flower to flower (especially when the sun is at its peak), emitting a characteristic humming sound with the flapping of its wings. They’re common butterflies in gardens, parks, shrubs, and transitional areas between forests and grasslands. It’s ubiquitous, as it adapts to dry and irrigated environments alike.

Thanks to its antennae, the hummingbird sphinx is an excellent flier. These structures allow you to detect the rotation during the maneuver in the different spatial axes to perfection.

An unusual vision

Although it may seem surprising, studies have shown that this species is capable of seeing in color. The hummingbird hawk-moth has a trichromatic visual system (three different types of eye cones) that allow it to perfectly distinguish the tones of the flowers to be able to feed on their nectar. Their vision is even better than that of the common bee (Apis mellifera).

Feeding

As indicated by its proboscis, this species feeds on the nectar of different flowers, all of them with a tube-shaped corolla. It’s no coincidence that the hummingbird hawk-moth almost exclusively searches for plants with deep calyx inflorescences, thus avoiding competition with many other pollinating insects that can’t take advantage of such “complex” flowers.

Some of the favorite genera for this species are the following: Centranthus, Jasminum, Buddleia, Nicotiana, Primula, Viola, Syringa, Verbena, Echium, Phlox, and Stachys. On the other hand, the larvae or worms feed on the leaves of plants of the genera Galium, Rubia and Stellaria. As you can see, the diet changes according to the life stage of the lepidoptera.

Reproduction of the hummingbird hawk-moth

This species produces two or more generations of offspring throughout its life, depending on its geographical location. The adults usually reproduce in June and September, and, as we’ve said, it’s one of the few Lepidoptera capable of surviving the winter climate in certain areas.

A fertilized female can lay up to 200 eggs, each on a separate plant. Six to eight days after oviposition, the larvae emerge, of a clear greenish hue and mimetic with the plants they feed on. Depending on the heat and sun exposure, the larval stage can last a very short time, about 20 days.

The larvae are very fat, they have whitish lateral lines and a typical sphinx horn.

Conservation status

As indicated by the Butterfly Conservation ORG, this species has not been evaluated in terms of conservation at the regional level. There is also no information about it on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), so we assume that knowledge about its populations is very limited.

However, we know that 40% of pollinating insects at a general level are at risk of extinction of varying degrees. Pesticides, mites, pollution, deforestation and the introduction of exotic species can put these and many other species in long-term danger if the appropriate changes aren’t made.

The beauty of the hummingbird hawk-moth is incomparable, because with its graceful flight and its beautiful colors this invertebrate will impress anyone. Taking care of the forests and avoiding the use of pesticides unless strictly necessary are requirements so that we can continue to enjoy this and many other species.

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  • Kelber, A., & Henique, U. (1999). Trichromatic colour vision in the hummingbird hawkmoth, Macroglossum stellatarum L. Journal of Comparative Physiology A, 184(5), 535-541.
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