Is it a hummingbird? Many gardeners jump to that conclusion when they first see a hummingbird moth. They share many characteristics and at first glance, these day-flying moths can be confusing.
The Snowberry Clearwing (Hemaris diffinis) is a member of the vast Sphingidae family which are also known as sphinx moths or hawk moths. These caterpillars characteristically raise the front part of their bodies up when disturbed, giving them a sphinxlike appearance, thus the name. Most sphinx moths are nocturnal and are rarely seen during daylight hours, but the Snowberry Clearwing and its clearwing cousins are diurnal and prefer the light of day. They feed on nectar and are important pollinators for a number of plants.
Since they hover over blossoms and sip their nectar while in flight, they are sometimes mistaken for a tiny hummingbird. Like hummingbirds, they can hover, fly backwards and are capable of aerial acrobatics more like a bird than a moth. Sometimes gardeners think they've spotted a baby hummingbird, but in reality, young hummingbirds are the same size as their parents when they fledge. Clearwing moths also have six legs and obvious antennae that hummingbirds do not.
Clearwing moths drink nectar as adults and the caterpillars use plum, honeysuckle, snowberry and hawthorn as host plants. Their undesirable cousin, the Tomato Hornworm is a serious garden pest, but the Clearwing moths have no desire for vegetable garden fare and are never a threat.
Hemaris species are called clearwings because the center parts of their wings shed their scales when they take their first flight. This makes their wings appear transparent in the center part, much like stained glass. They are widespread throughout North America and are also known for mimicking bumblebees too.
Clearwing moths are attracted to blossoms that hummingbirds favor and like phlox, butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii) and various honeysuckles. I have an enormous white Buddleja that they seem to prefer over any other plant in my garden and many times, I'll have several dozen feeding there at once.
So the next time, you think you see a tiny hummingbird hovering at a blossom, take a second look. Chances are it is one of the Clearwing moths stopping in for a quick snack!