Hummingbird Clearwing Moth

Clouds of colorful tall phlox greeted me in the garden after returning from a family vacation. Although not the exact shade of pink I would have chosen, these billowy blooms still supply a mid-summer punch to the border and nectar for garden friends.

At first glance, some might mistaken this guest (below) for a tiny hummingbird as it hovers above the blooms sipping nectar. But it’s a Hummingbird Clearwing Moth (Hemaris thysbe) that is seen through central and eastern North America and Alaska. The ‘fur’ on the body of the insect looks more like a hummingbird’s feathers.

These attractive moths may confuse some because they are active during the daytime along with hummingbirds, not at night with many other moth species. Below see the curled proboscis or mouth part used to suck nectar from the flower.

As the moth prepares to feed, it uncurls the proboscis and inserts it into the center of a bloom.

I suspect the host plant for the hummingbird moth is my coral honeysuckle growing against a post beneath the deck. Tomorrow I will inspect the plant to see if I can discover any hummingbird moth caterpillars… which is fine with me. This insect is a delight to see in the garden… not a pest at all.

Good Morning Sunshine…

Look who greeted us on our deck this morning!  Who do you think this is?

This lime green visitor is a luna moth (Actias luna), probably one of the most spectacular moths of North America. At almost a 4 1/2″ wing span, it’s hard to miss. We left the deck light on last night and these moths are attracted to light. I consider that light pollution and we won’t do that again.

On the fore wing and hind wings, it has eyspots to fool predators but I find a lot of wings on my walks so not everyone is fooled. The adult moth lives for about a week after emerging from the cocoon when mating and laying of about 200 eggs occurs. The moths have no mouth parts at this stage and eat nothing for this week.

The antennae are clues to the sex of the moth. Our visitor is a female. The male has fuller, feathery antennae to better sense the female pheromones at night.

When is a bumblebee not a bumblebee?

Bumblebee on Bluebeard shrub

The answer: When it is a moth.

True bumblebees are all over my bluebeard shrub (Caryopteris ‘Blue Mist’) and all over any late blooming flower in the garden, honeysuckle, lantana, butterfly bush, wild ginger, asters, etc. If you’re weeding nearby or just admiring the insects, you might spot one ‘bee’ that is not like the others. The black and yellow colors seem right but this odd bumblebee will hover over the flower while it feeds unlike the other bumblebees that bump and collide and crawl over blooms to feed.

This odd-looking bee is not a bee at all. It’s a Bumblebee Moth, a Snowberry Clearwing Moth, Hemaris diffinis, and it is a pretty darn good bumblebee mimic. You’ll see it flitting around the garden feeding during the day just like the bees. Any predators should recognize the familiar yellow and black warning pattern and steer clear of the potential sting.  Except this little yellow and black moth is completely harmless. It’s simply a moth.

Snowberry clearwing bumblebee moth

The caterpillar of the moth is pale green on the back with darker green along the sides. There are numerous flecks on the body and a horn of bright yellow at the base with a black tip on the top. Although related to the tobacco hornworm, this bumblebee moth caterpillar will eat the snowberry,  honeysuckle,  and cranberry viburnum…. NOT your tomato plants! Be kind to these caterpillars.

Snowberry clearwing moth caterpillar

Interestingly, the snowberry plant, Symphoricarpus albus, that gave the insect its name is a hardy deciduous plant in the honeysuckle family that was brought back to the east with the Lewis & Clark expedition. When it reached Thomas Jefferson, he was enthusiastic about the plant with the lovely pink blooms followed by large pure white fruit, and penned “some of the most beautiful berries I have ever seen.” It’s deer resistant, great for cut flowers, likes shade and these little bumblebee moths like it. That’s all the persuasion I need. I think I must have a few snowberry plants in this garden next spring…. perhaps in the shade of the new secret garden!

Ann Hohenberger, the Garden Club of Gloucester

Woolly Bully…

Click for closeup view

I spied this autumn colored caterpillar making its way across the the pine needles and miniature thyme yesterday.  At first glance I thought it might be our most common banded woolly bear without the black bands encircling both ends, the size of which is said to predict a mild or severe winter. But it was not a banded woolly bear.

There are many species in the “woolly bear” or “woolly worm” family with the characteristic thick bristles that cover the caterpillar’s body. I am undecided which of two woolly bears our orange caterpillar is. Caterpillars can be tricky to identify because of their color variations but I believe this little visitor is either a salt marsh caterpillar, the larva of a Acrea moth (Estigmene acrea) or a yellow bear, the larva of a Virginian tiger moth (Spilosoma virginica).

Click to see a white Virginia tiger moth up close

The Yellow Bear is a fairly common Virginia tiger moth larva that is seen in the fall of the year as it crosses roads and paths seeking a spot for hibernation. The color of the yellow bear can vary from yellow to orange to almost black. The salt marsh caterpillar is common in our area and, in numbers, can be a pest in our vegetable gardens. None are invading our vegetables though. Both larvae develop into lovely and similar tiger moths. I gently picked the caterpillar up (carefully as the bristles can be irritating) and as characteristic of all woolly bears, it immediately curled into a tight ball as a protective measure. I reached down and allowed it to roll from my palm and it quickly made its way over and under the fall leaf litter.

During the summer months, I will often keep a light burning for a couple of hours at night to attract and study a wide variety of moths and insects that settle on the porch wall. The tiger moths are steady visitors, especially the Virginia Tiger Moth with its fuzzy white thorax and its fringed edges on the wings that open to reveal splashes of orange on the abdomen. Because I see so many of the moths at night, I’m leaning toward my visiting woolly bear being a yellow bear caterpillar, however, I’m hoping for a positive ID from someone out there.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester