Sighted at McCrory: It’s a bird, it’s a moth…it’s a hummingbird moth!

Every year I and my wife eagerly await for hummingbird moth appearance at McCory Gardens and this year doesn’t disappoint. Last week we stepped into the garden just before sunset and I immediately spotted six figures hovering above some flowers. Hummingbirds moth are indeed hummingbird-like. They flap their wings very fast and as the result are able to hover steadily in the air while telescoping their long proboscis into the flowers’ nectaries, usually located way down in the bottom of the flowers. The wings usually flap so rapidly, they seem to be a blur.

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White-lined sphinx moth (Photo: Nita Sari Dewi)

The long proboscis are retractable and are usually coiled and tucked underneath the head when not used to feed. The picture below illustrates the beginning of proboscis coiling just after the moth finished feeding on a flower’s nectary.

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Note the coiling of the proboscis (Photo: Nita Sari Dewi)

The species of hummingbird moth that we seem to always spot here in Brookings is white-lined sphinx moth, Hyles lineata.White-lined sphinx moth is readily identifiable by the white streak on the forewings and the pink area on the hindwings. The larvae have a unique feature of a horn jutting out of the hind end, earning its nickname of ‘hornworm’. White-lined sphinx moth larvae feed on various plants including garden plants such as tomato, elm or evening primrose. Yet the injuries caused by their feeding are relatively mild and do not usually require any control. The larvae burrow into the ground to pupate. It takes 3-4 weeks for adult moth to emerge from the pupa. Here in South Dakota we normally see up to two generations of hummingbird moth per year.

Although some have reported that hummingbird moths are easily spotted in daylight, I always found them at dusk. This past week has been a week for hummingbird moth sightings. A professor whose office is above me stopped by and asked about ‘a hummingbird-like moth’ he saw in his yard. A research specialist left two hummingbird moths on my desk (“They were coming after me!”), and finally I caught the town librarians chattering about these moths when checking out my customary weekend books on Friday. How about you? Have you spotted a hummingbird moth lately?

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Photo: Nita Sari Dewi

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What is pink, clumpy and found in a birdfeeder?

A couple of weeks ago, one of our county extension offices sent an email connecting me with somebody with an amusing insect story from her backyard. Susan Stone-Douglas was the person with the story. She is kind enough to write her part of the story for this blog:

“On April 17, 2012 I took my birdfeeder down to fill it and found this cocoon-like matter under the lid.  I thought it was a spider nest.  Being allergic to spider bites I wasn’t thrilled.  But at the same time I was totally fascinated by the beauty and symmetry of what Mother Nature produces. 

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I first emailed my picture to my friend Shari Kosel and she forwarded it to her sister in New Mexico, whose 10 year old son, Reiney Houfek, loves bugs of any kind.  Reiney told Shari it wasn’t a spider nest it was a clump of moth eggs.

Meanwhile I had Googled the Extension Service and emailed my picture to them at SDSU and also my friend Dr. Holly Downing, an entomologist at BHSU.  The entomologist’s from both colleges confirmed our budding 10 year old entomologist was correct and went on to identify the moth.  Holly told me the black dot in the center of each egg told her they had already hatched, which, of course, proved true.  I never did get to see what came out of the cocoon.  I’m just happy it wasn’t spiders.

I also posted my picture on Facebook and an amazing conversation resulted.”

An amusing story indeed! It has all sorts of interesting little parts: mysterious cocoon-like thing in a bird feeder, a 10 year-old budding entomologist and a testimony of Facebook power to create conversations. What more can you want from a story?

The egg clump found in Sue’s bird feeder is indeed a moth egg cluster. Meal moths in particular are fond of laying their eggs in any location with accumulation of bird feeds with a long-term view that the hatching larvae can use the bird feed as food source later. Meal moths do not constitute a problem outdoors. They shouldn’t harm the bird and their populations do not usually become too big. They can become a problem indoors when they do get in. Meal moth larvae tend to be found in stored grains and their derivative products (e.g. flour, pet food, etc.). Keeping the stored grains in well lidded containers, not keeping them for too long and general sanitation of the storage area are good practices to keep meal moths away.

Again, thanks to Sue for sharing her story and kudos for Reiney Houfek for the spot-on id of the moth eggs!