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Hawk Moths

Blinded Sphinx Moth vs. One-eyed Sphinx Moth

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Moths in the family Sphingidae are commonly called “hummingbird” (for their habit of hovering as they feed on nectar from flowers), “sphinx” (the larva holds its legs off the surface and tucks its head underneath, resembling the Egyptian Sphinx) or “hawk” (they fly with great speed and precision) moths.   Most are fairly large, with some species having a wingspread of up to 5” or more.

One group of sphinx moths is referred to as the “Eyed Sphinx Moths,” two of which are the Blinded Sphinx Moth (Paonias excaecata) and the One-eyed Sphinx Moth (Smerinthus cerisyi). The derivation of their respective common names can be easily ascertained by examining the upper surface of their hind wings. The Blinded Sphinx Moth has a single blue eyespot on each hindwing, whereas the One-eyed Sphinx Moth has a round or diamond-shaped black spot (“pupil”) in the center of each blue eyespot. The Blinded Sphinx Moth is light brown, whereas the One-eyed is a violet-gray. Both moths have scalloped wings that are held elevated and slightly away from the body. They are nocturnal, and regularly visit lights in small numbers. Their life is short, and adults of both species do not feed.

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Poplar Hawk-moths Emerging, Mating & Laying Eggs

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June is well-known for the giant silk moths that emerge this month, but there are other large moths that are encountered as well, one of which is the Poplar Hawk-moth (Laothoe populi). Hawk-moths, also known as Hornworms (their larvae, which feed mainly on species of poplar, usually have a horn), are a type of Sphinx moth, which are known for their fast, enduring flight. One of the more familiar species of this family is the day-flying Hummingbird Hawk-moth, which can be seen hovering at flowers while sipping nectar with its proboscis.

Adult Poplar Hawk-moths, with wingspans as large as four inches, emerge in early summer. Their life is so short that they do not have a functional proboscis and do not eat, but concentrate on mating. Females extend a scent gland from the end of their abdomen to lure in the night flying males whose large claspers are frequently wide open as they fly in to lights around midnight. The moths mate and the females lay their pale green eggs on the leaves of poplars and willows, which the larvae eat once they hatch. Fully-grown caterpillars pupate and overwinter in shallow burrows in the ground.

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Pandorus Sphinx Larvae About To Pupate

9-4-15 pandorus sphinx 033The family Sphingidae consists of sphinx (also called hawk) moths. In their larval stage, these moths are often referred to as hornworms, because of the horn, eyespot or hardened button they all possess at the far end of their bodies. (Many gardeners are familiar with the Tobacco Hornworm (Carolina Sphinx Moth), a voracious consumer of tomato plants.)

Before overwintering as pupae, hornworm larvae feed continuously. The pictured Pandorus Sphinx (Eumorpha pandorus) feeds on both grape and Virginia creeper foliage. This particular hornworm comes in four colors – green, orange, pink or cinnamon and can grow to a length of 3 ½ inches before pupating. Each of the white spots surrounds a spiracle, or tiny hole through which air enters the hornworm’s body. A horn is present up until the last instar, or stage, of the larva’s life, at which point it is replaced by a button (see insert) that resembles an eye. The larva will soon burrow into the soil, spend the winter as a pupa, and emerge as an adult moth in the spring.(Thanks to Sadie Richards Brown for finding and caretaking this caterpillar until I could photograph it.)

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