Hummingbird hawkmoth

Posted: Wednesday 10 September 2014
by Richard Jones

The hummingbird hawkmoth has been visiting my mum’s garden, but then she does live in the Mediterranean climate of the Sussex coast.

The hummingbird hawkmoth has been visiting my mum’s garden, but then she does live in the Mediterranean climate of the Sussex coast. Right at the foot of the South Downs, facing the sea across the grazing meadows of the River Ouse, she gets just about the driest, warmest, sunniest weather anywhere in Britain, easily competing with Eastbourne, the Isle of Wight and Torbay.
This hyperactive little moth had been taking its fill of nectar from the red valerian flowers that erupt all around the house from the meagre few inches of topsoil covering the chalk bedrock. Anyone who has ever seen this wondrous animal can't forget its perfect hummingbird hovering flight as it darts from flower to flower, extending its stalk-like tongue down into the nectaries. Its scientific name Macroglossum stellatarum means 'long-tongued star', although long-tongued comet would seem a perfectly acceptable translation.
In Britain the hummingbird hawkmoth has long been reckoned a summer migrant visitor. Although the south coast is a regular hot-spot of sightings, its powerful flight means that you have as good chance as any to see it anywhere in England, and in much of Wales, Scotland and Ireland too. About 2,600 observations are plotted so far on Butterfly Conservation’s 2014 migrant watch for the moth. One flitted past me earlier in the year in a derelict sand quarry near Dartford, where it was trying out the wild flowers along the overgrown trackside.
Received wisdom has it that the hummingbird hawkmoth has never properly overwintered here, and that it has to re-invade from North Africa and the Mediterranean every year. However, sightings in recent Januaries, down in the West Country, seem to indicate that a few of them may now be successfully hibernating.
When we stayed in a large thatched barn conversion in Suffolk one bright October weekend, a good 15 years ago now, we were regularly buzzed by a hummingbird hawk, which came indoors to roost overnight up against the roof laths. Hibernation is just a little way further down the resting-roosting gradient.
It can’t be long before regular breeding colonies are found, surely. On the continent bedstraws and madders are listed as caterpillar foodplants. It’s also been seen laying eggs on red valerian. I’m going to have a good hands-and-knees search in my mum’s garden throughout the next few months.

Thanks to Julie Watson for kind permission to use the beautiful image of the hummingbird hawkmoth.

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sue24 11/09/2014 at 22:41

I had a hummingbird moth in my garden for the first time this year it was on my Verbena for about 3 days then vanished and I have not seen it since, they are fascinating to watch feeding
Sue Harvey

Lolagail 16/09/2014 at 11:07

We have one every year, never more than one, and it loves the Summer Jasmine and the Phlox. I had to cut my Phlox down this year as some of them had terrible mildew (never happened before) and the Jasmine had got too big so that was cut back too, so I haven't seen it this year. They are lovely.

LORRAINEJENNING 18/09/2014 at 14:36

I live in North Yorkshire and we've had hawksmoth caterpillars in our garden this year. Either the weather is warming up or they're toughening up! They love the strawplants we had and also seemed attracted to the nepeta. Sadly we haven't seen the adult moths but it was great to see the caterpillars.

nutcutlet 18/09/2014 at 17:13

Which hawkmoth were your caterpillars Lorraine

Katkin2 18/09/2014 at 22:00

I had a huge moth in my house, no idea what kind it was, but very nicely marked in brown shades. I very carefully climbed up and managed to persuade it into a glass, covered the glass, carried it through the house and out into the garden and released it. As I stood watching it fly away, feeling a great sense of satisfaction that I had rescued it, a bird swooped down and grabbed it in mid air and flew away with it in it's beak!!!! Oh well, at least I had the satisfaction of knowing that the bird got his supper.

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