Next time you think you see a small hummingbird zip around your garden, take a closer look — it just might be a hummingbird clearwing moth. People usually think of moths as nocturnal creatures attracted to lights. But clearwing moths are colorful daytime visitors to flowers. Only about half the size of a hummingbird, this moth has a thick, heavy body in comparison to many moths, large, clear wings with reddish-brown borders, and a long proboscis for sipping nectar. In our garden, they seem to prefer monarda or bee balm, in particular the native variety (Monarda fistulosa). I’ve also seen them sip nectar from garden phlox, petunias and common milkweed.
Two species of clearwing moth are common in the eastern half of North America: the snowberry clearwing (Hemaris diffinis) and the hummingbird clearwing (Hemaris thysbe). The two species are easy to tell apart because (H. diffinis) mimics bumblebees with primarily yellow and black coloration and black legs. (H. thysbe) is typically olive with maroon or rust, and the legs are yellowish or pale-colored. A third variety, (Hemaris thetis) lives primarily in western North America.
The caterpillars of both clearwing moths are green, although sometimes the hummingbird clearwing’s can be reddish. Both species’ caterpillars have a horn on one end. The hummingbird clearwing caterpillar is sprinkled with tiny white dots and the horn is bluish. It feeds on honeysuckle, cherry, plum, snowberry and European viburnum plants. The snowberry clearwing caterpillar has black spots on its sides and the horn is black with a yellow base. Common host plants for this caterpillar are honeysuckle, snowberry and dogbane. Cocoons of both species overwinter in leaf litter on the ground and become adult moths the following spring.