Not a hawk, not a hummingbird; it's a sphinx. | Natural World | Bend | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon

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Not a hawk, not a hummingbird; it's a sphinx.


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This summer may go down in Central Oregon history as the "Year of the Moth." First it was the thousands of tiny, nocturnal moths of spring bouncing off our front porch lights, vehicle headlights and light poles—moths that bats love to eat. Then came a few BIG ceanothus silkworm moths, followed by the small outbreak of Pandoras that's about done.

In between were the pinkish to brown sheep moths, aka the elegant day moth, and the smaller black and white day-flying Riding's Forester moths that we often see when my wife, Sue, is conducting her annual butterfly counts. At the same time the pestiferous tent caterpillars started hatching, and now their silken tents are all over the bitterbrush, and the parasitic wasps have found the caterpillars.

What started this discussion on moths were the current, jaw-dropping, White-lined sphinx, aka hawk and hummingbird moths (and their kin) just about everywhere there are flowering plants. Yes, they look and behave like hummingbirds, but they're not. Hummingbirds are just that—birds, but the hummingbird-like critter you're seeing right now, probing its long straw-like proboscis into flowers, is a beautiful insect pollinator, and they got the name, hawk moth, because of their speed in flight.

If you have time—and if you don't, may I suggest you make the time—slow down and get as close as you can and watch sphinx moths. If you're patient you may be close enough to hear them as they softly buzz up to a flower, and then watch as they uncoil that delicate drinking straw mouthpiece with which they sip nectar from the base of flowers.

The males and females are easy to tell apart from each other, as the males possess a pair of enlarged feathery antennae sticking out of the front of the head, with which he sniffs the female's scent (pheromones). It's the tool that guarantees they will meet up and there will be white-lined moths in the future.

Now, here's a little data on the white-lined sphinx so you can get to know them a little better: its scientific name is Hyles (Genus name) and Latin word, lineata (species) name, which, according to my grandson, Joseph—who's a very bright home-schooler—means: lines, referring to the white lines on the wings and abdomen.

After mating, the female lays her eggs on several different plants including willow weed, apple, grape, purslane, evening primrose and tomatoes. Yeah, tomatoes, and then the larva are known as the "tomato horned worm" and are squashed by gardeners.

They are the size of your little finger and can be all green, green and yellow, green and black, or all black, but all have the yellow "horn" sticking out the dorsal side of the back end, and they can do lethal damage to your tomato plants.

STOP! Please, don't squash or smash the next one you see on your tomato plant! Just lift it off and place it outside in the sagebrush and other plants alongside your garden. As you look at the soft green, spotted caterpillar with its bright yellow horn sticking up out of the back end, don't think about it as a tomato plant-killer; imagine the White-lined Sphinx, aka hummingbird moth, it will become.

You could also plant some cherry tomatoes alongside your beefsteak variety with a screen between them and transfer the larvae to the little plants. That comes under the heading of "unsolicited advice..." and it's free.

As adults, hawk moths are very important pollinators for flowers with deep throats, among them, lilies. The adult moths range all over the U.S. of A., but are mostly found in the West. However, they can also be found in Canada and Mexico, and according to one source they have been seen in the West Indies, so they really get around. There's no way to get around it; adult sphinx moths are key pollinators of the rare lemon lily (Lilium parryi) that grows wild in California, Arizona and Nevada.

The Miracle of Metamorphosis

Once the larvae (caterpillars) get to the final instar of growth, they burrow in the ground to pupate. It's during the pupating stage the miracle of metamorphosis take place.

Yes, to me it's a miracle, because once inside that silken pupa case, known as the cocoon, the entire caterpillar breaks down into a genetic soup—literally—then an entirely new insect appears with three body parts, entirely different eating apparatus; now more chewing, but a long straw for sucking nectar. It also comes out equipped with wings, six- legs, a reproductive system and internal organs completely different from the caterpillar—and the most miraculous part of all this is while those changes are taking place that force of Life lives on—somewhere, somehow.

Now here's a mystery. One source says they emerge from the cocoon as adults in two to three weeks. Hmmmmm. If that's the case, at what stage of growth does it get through the winter? Eggs? Larvae? Pupae? Adults? Someone has to get through winter to have them appear the following summer.

I'm going to finish this little moth dissertation with photos of other common moths you may bump into during the day hiking, or come to your lantern on a camping trip.

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