A Pretty Perplexing Pollinator
Hanging with a Hovering Hemaris
A Garden Conversation
Oh! You're new.
I've never seen you before.
You know, just because a human hasn't noticed something, doesn't mean it isn't there.
Fair point. So you're not new, but what are you? A baby hummingbird?
Are you serious right now?
Why not? You're flying like a hummingbird, all hovering and humming and darting about, and you're drinking from the flowers. You just seem a little small is all.
Oh that's all, is it? How about what I'm using to drink from the flowers?
Your super long tongue?
It's called a proboscis.
Hummingbirds have tongues.
They also have beaks.
Oh, I suppose they do. You have pretty feathers, though.
Don't you? You look, well, cute and green and fuzzy.
Fuzzy yes, feathered no. Those are hairs.
Even your fancy tail?
Even my fancy tail.
It kind of looks like a lobster tail.
I'm going to pretend you didn't say that. Are you sure there isn't something else that makes it pretty obvious that I'm not a bird? Something a little more... transparent?
Why are you flapping your wings so hard? Oh! Your wings! They're see-through.
So you're a bee.
What? No. I am not a bee. But if I was a bee, you might be heading for a stinging...
But you're fuzzy and hanging around flowers and have see-through wings. That's, like, the classic bee vibe.
Bee antennae are not nearly as fancy as these.
You are rocking those pretty hard. So if you're not a bird and you're not a bee, what are you?
Proof of the beautiful and wondrous variety of nature. A glimpse into the fascinating realm of convergent evolution. A creature that defies the narrow categorizations of humankind.
I'm a moth.
No you're not.
Moths only come out at night. Like vampires.
Most moths come out at night, but there are plenty of us day-flyers too.
Are you sure you're not a butterfly?
How DARE you!
What? Butterflies are great. People love butterflies.
160,000 kinds of moths in the world, and fewer than 18,000 kinds of butterflies. And look at my glorious fuzz! Yes, I'm sure I'm not a butterfly!
Okay, okay, sorry. Have some nectar, take a breath. So you're a moth that acts like a hummingbird but has see-through wings. What kind of moth are you?
Hummingbird clearwing moth.
Look, since we're chatting...
How are we doing that?
Beats me. But could I ask a favour? Could you please stop raking up the leaves in the fall? They're not garbage. They're where we keep our cocoons.
That's a terrible place to live.
Take it up with evolution. I just know that I still have nightmares about leaf blowers.
Okay, cool. I mean, less work for me.
And you can self-righteously tell your neighbours that you're being lazy to save the local ecosystem.
And who are you going to tell them you're saving?
Uhhh.... the Not-a-hummingbird moth?
*sigh* Close enough.
Even if you know they exist, I think the first time anyone sees a clearwing moth it's always a bit of a double-, triple-, or quadruple-take as the part of your brain that sorts the world stumbles over what to do with this little wonder (we like to think we know the birds from the bees; turns out we might be wrong).
Clearwing moths are part of the Sphingidae, or sphinx moth, family. There are a few different clearwing moths in North America: the widespread hummingbird clearwing (Hemaris thysbe) and snowberry clearwing (Hemaris diffinis) are most common, with the slender clearwing (Hemaris gracilis), Diervilla clearwing (Hemaris aethra), and Rocky Mountain clearwing (Hemaris thetis) spicing things up in a few parts of the continent. As far as I can tell the rest of the world calls their hummingbird-like hemaris species "bee hawkmoths", which is also a pretty great name. Then there’s a whole other genus of hummingbird hawkmoths (Macroglossum) who also fall under the sphinx moth family but who don’t have clear wings…
Basically there are a lot of very cool moths out there.
Along with leaving the leaves alone, you can also help clearwings the same way you help all pollinators—planting flowers and caterpillar host plants that are native to your area, avoiding the use of pesticides, and not getting upset when said caterpillars eat said plants. And you don't need to own property to help create more pollinator habitat; my first clearwing moth double-take happened in a school garden in the middle of a very urban part of Toronto. And no, I did not get a good photo.
Here’s to the hummingbird moths; long may they baffle us.
Join the Conversation
Have you heard of or seen a clearwing or hawkmoth? Do you have a favourite moth, or another favourite insect? Or a bug that baffles you? Share your thoughts:
You can comment or click the heart on any issue of Mouse and Minnow on the website archive, or hit the reply button in your email provider to send us your thoughts directly.
Thanks for reading,
Marilyn & Steve
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Mouse and Minnow is a free newsletter celebrating animals, sent out most Sundays. It is co-created by partners Steve Alguire (illustration) and Marilyn Anne Campbell (writing). Learn more about the newsletter or use the subscribe button below to receive original art and writing about the wonderful creatures of this world right in your inbox.
Looking for more on clearwing moths? Check out:
The Hummingbird Moth: One of Canada’s Coolest Creatures and The Colourful Hummingbird Moth on NatureCanada.ca
Clearwing Hummingbird Moth and Its Life Cycle by Philadelphia-based environmental educator Donna L. Long
An interesting take on choosing garden plants from a nursery to literally bring these insects to a yard in A case of moth envy: hummingbird moths of our area by Ontario gardener and educator Renée DeVry.
Or go beyond the clearwings with an article from PBS on the European moths, Featured Creature: Hummingbird Hawk-Moth by Eric R. Olsen
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