Sphinx Moths, Family Sphingidae

Habits and Traits of Hawkmoths

Lesser Vine Sphinx Moth
  zeesstof / Getty Images 

Members of the family Sphingidae, the sphinx moths, attract attention with their large size and ability to hover. Gardeners and farmers will recognize their larvae as the pesky hornworms that can wipe out a crop in a matter of days.

All About Sphinx Moths

Sphinx moths, also known as hawkmoths, fly fast and strong, with rapid wingbeats. Most are nocturnal, though some visit flowers during the day.

Sphinx moths are medium to large in size, with thick bodies and wingspans of 5 inches or more. The top of the forewing is a dark olive-brown with lighter brown on the margin with a narrow tan band along the wingtip to the base, and white streaks on the veins. The top of the hindwing is black with a dark pink band.

Their abdomens typically end in a point. In sphinx moths, the hindwings are markedly smaller than the forewings. Antennae are thickened.

Sphinx moth larvae are called hornworms, for a harmless but pronounced "horn" on the dorsal side of their hind ends. Some hornworms do significant damage to agricultural crops and are therefore considered pests. In their final instars (or developmental stages between molts), sphinx moth caterpillars can be quite large, some measuring as long as your pinky finger.

Classification of Sphinx Moths

Kingdom – Animalia
Phylum – Arthropoda
Class – Insecta
Order – Lepidoptera
Family - Sphingidae

The Sphinx Moth Diet

Most adults nectar on flowers, extending a long proboscis to do so. Their diet includes:

  • columbines
  • larkspurs
  • petunia
  • honeysuckle
  • moon vine
  • bouncing bet
  • lilac
  • clovers,
  • thistles
  • Jimson weed

Caterpillars feed on a range of host plants, including both woody and herbaceous plants. Their diet includes:

  • willow weed
  • four o'clock
  • apple
  • evening primrose
  • elm
  • grape
  • tomato
  • purslane
  • Fuchsia

Sphingid larvae usually have specific host plants, rather than being generalist feeders.

Many people plant moonlight or fragrance gardens to attract such nocturnal pollinators as the sphinx moth.

The Sphinx Moth Life Cycle

Female moths lay eggs, usually singly, on host plants. Larvae may hatch within a few days or several weeks, depending on species and environmental variables.

When the caterpillar reaches its final instar, it pupates, or transforms into the final adult stage. Most Sphingid larvae pupate in the soil, though some spin cocoons in leaf litter. In places where winter occurs, Sphingid moths overwinter in the pupal stage.

Special Adaptations and Defenses

Some sphinx moths nectar on pale, deep flowers, employing an unusually long proboscis. The proboscis of certain Sphingidae species can measure a full 12 inches long. They have the longest tongue of any moth or butterfly.

Sphinx moths are also famous for their ability to hover at flowers, much like hummingbirds. In fact, some Sphingids resemble bees or hummingbirds and can move sideways and stop in midair.

Charles Darwin predicted that the hawk or sphinx moth pollinated star orchids of Madagascar with their foot-long nectar spurs. He was initially ridiculed for this prediction, but was later proved correct.

Range and Distribution

Worldwide, over 1,200 species of sphinx moths have been described. About 125 species of Sphingidae live in North America. Sphinx moths live on all continents except Antarctica.