Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Hummingbird (Sphinx) Moths


Snowberry Clearwing Sphinx Moth
Every year, I try to add more plants to attract birds and butterflies. Last year, we had an incredible assortment of butterflies in July and August. This year, we have been surprised by some new (for us) sightings, here in the middle of the city: monarch butterflies, yellow swallowtails, hummingbirds, white-crowned sparrows, an Eastern towhee, to name a few.

One day, during that amazing hot spell we had back in July, I was lounging by the (baby) pool with my little guy, and this small creature zoomed by my head. I had been trying to spot the hummingbird since my first sighting of it on the bee balm the week before, so I got just a little bit excited, and ran over to spy it, where it landed on the butterflybush.

To my surprise, I found a snowberry clearwing sphinx moth, instead! When I dashed into the house to grab my camera, it decided to leave. 

Not to worry. The butterflybush must have been very enticing, as the creature was back again the next afternoon. This time, it spent the entire afternoon going from bloom to bloom, dashing away for a moment, then returning for another drink. In fact, it dined so late into the evening, that it spent the night resting on the flower. [At first I thought it must be laying eggs, it was so still. But it didn't appear to be doing so. My naturalist son wondered if it was nearing the end of its life, and it was just winding down. But it DID end up disappearing sometime the next morning.]

Reading up on this moth, I found that its favorite foods were (surprise) butterflybush and honeysuckle, the latter of which we have growing along a fence very near where these photos were taken. I have never looked for the caterpillars there, but I suppose I could!

The Handbook of Nature Study has a long section (pp. 320-325) on the sphinx moths (the tomato hornworm is the larva, or caterpillar, of another kind of sphinx moth). There is also a great overview of its life cycle, with excellent photographs, in Birds-N-Gardens. Barbara McCoy wrote about a surprise encounter with a sphinx moth in her house on her Handbook of Nature Study blog entry, on the hummingbird or white-lined sphinx moth.

My son didn't get to see the moth, so we won't do a full study on it (unless, of course, it returns!). But I wanted to share the photographs and links, in case you are lucky enough to catch up with one, when your child is in tow.

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Bee Balm (Monarda)
Here are the plants we have put in to attract wildlife:

  • Black-eyed Susan (all kinds -- annual, perennial, and one with green 'eyes')
  • Butterfly Bush (this one is 'Black Knight' -- much nicer than the ordinary one, which we also have)
  • Ruby Spice Summersweet
  • Ox-eye daisies
  • Sedge (for caterpillars)
  • Radishes and other kole crops (for the cabbage whites)
  • Bee balm
  • Coneflower: lots of varieties -- regular purple, double purple, rose, yellow (called 'Macaroni and Cheese'!), a green one (forget the name)
  • Bleeding heart (white with green leaves, pink with yellow leaves)
  • Herbs: thyme, oregano, peppermint, dill, parsley -- the swallowtails like the dills and parsley
  • Winterberry
  • Mulberry -- the robins and their first batch of babies stripped one clean in days!
  • Petunias
  • Coreopsis (threadleaf, the standard, and a midget one that I can't recall the name of...)
  • Roses (the shrub kind grow best for us)
  • Daylilies
  • Verbena -- the bees love it
  • Salvia -- ditto here
Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly


The birds also love to sit on the edge of the dog's water dish (when he's not outside, of course), and drink and bathe. We notice that our brush pile and compost area also attract lots of critters (some of the furry kind, like possums, raccoons and skunks, too). I'm thinking of putting in a little 6-foot pond in the corner. My husband has given me the blessing, provided I finish my office/homeschool room project first. Fair enough.


The Handbook of Nature Study has some ideas to try, to attract more birds to your yard.

I'm sure there's more. I have to get out and cut back the bee balm so it will flower again. 

Peace --