Hawk moths (or Sphinx moths) are moths in the family Sphingidae. They are some of the fastest flying insects, capable of flying at over 30 miles per hour (50 km/h). They have a wingspan of 35-150 millimeters. Some hawk moths, like the hummingbird hawk moth, hover in midair while they feed on nectar from flowers and are sometimes mistaken for hummingbirds, even in continents where hummingbirds are not found.
The larvae of most species of hawk moth have a “horn” at the posterior end. Because of this, in North America hawk moth caterpillars are often known as hornworms. Large green tomato hornworms (Manduca quinquemaculata) are a familiar sight to vegetable gardeners, usually noticed only after they have defoliated large amount of tomato leaves. Tobacco hornworms (Manduca sexta) feed on tobacco leaves.
Hawk moths have a very specialized proboscis that can be of considerable length. This proboscis allows one giant species of hawk moth to eat from Comet Orchids, a rare Madagascan flower with its nectar stored at the bottom of a 30 cm long tube, which is accessible to no other bird or pollinating insect. The Comet Orchid was first discovered by Darwin, and he famously predicted that there must be some specialized animal to feed from it, and while he was ridiculed, he was proved correct 21 years later when a particularly large and long-tongued hawk moth, Xanthopan morganii praedicta was described – the subspecific name “praedicta” commemorating Darwin’s prediction.
There are around 1200 species of hawk moth, classified into around 200 genera. Some of the best known species are:
- Death’s-head Hawkmoth (Acherontia atropos)
- Lime Hawk-moth (Mimas tiliae)
- Poplar Hawk-moth (Laothoe populi)
- Catalpa Sphinx (Ceratomia catalpae)
- Hummingbird hawk moth (Macroglossum stellatarum)
- Elephant hawk moth (Deilephila elpenor)