Hummingbird Imposters

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Published on: Jun. 2, 2001

Last revision: Nov. 9, 2010

Every summer people call or write the Conservation Department to report seeing an animal that looks like a hummingbird, flies like a hummingbird and eats from flowers like a hummingbird. But then they say it can't be a hummingbird because it has antennae.

Well, here's some good news. There is an insect that looks and acts like a hummingbird and is even named after a hummingbird. It's called a hummingbird clearwing, and it's one of 125 moths in the sphinx or hawk moth family (Sphingidae) that inhabits North America. Of these, 56 live in Missouri. About 975 other species are found throughout the rest of the world.

Sphinx moths get their name from the posture their larvae assume when disturbed. The larva elevates the front part of its body and assumes a Sphinx-like posture. The larvae of many sphinx moths are known as hornworms because of the horn- or spine-like appendage on the last segment of the body.

Hawk moths are another group in the family, but the name also is used interchangeably with sphinx moth. Hawk moths are so named because of their swooping flight.

An adult sphinx moth has a protruding head with large eyes, a large, "furry" thorax-the middle body segment where the wings are attached-and a conical abdomen that extends well beyond the hind wings when the moth is flying. The front wings are long and narrow, and the hind wings are smaller. Sphinx moths fly with strong and rapid wing beats and are among the few groups of insects that can hover. People also sometimes mistake the white-lined sphinx for hummingbirds. This species is common in Missouri. The white-lined sphinx is active primarily between dusk and dawn, but occasionally people spot them during daylight hours.

Clearwing moths, the group to which the hummingbird and bumblebee mimics belong, lose the scales on their front wings after their first flight. Their wings resemble leaded stained glass with clear glass in the panels, much like a bee or wasp wing.

The snowberry clearwing is often mistaken for a bumblebee. Not only does this clearwing have yellow and black bands, it also hovers and flits from flower to flower while sipping nectar. Clearwings are active during the daytime when people are most likely to see them.

Adult sphinx moths are medium to large moths with wingspans ranging from about 1.25 inches to 4.75 inches. The snowberry clearwing is one of the smallest moths in this group, while

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