In-flight fueling

In the Right Place

Editor’s Note: Brooklin author/photographer Richard J. Leighton creates the popular “In the Right Place” posts online about life and nature in Maine. He will share a post the second Thursday of each month in The Ellsworth American.

By Richard Leighton

What has the appearance of a hawk, the movements of a hummingbird, the fuzziness of a bumblebee, the wings of a dragonfly, the tail of a lobster and the length of a credit card?

That would be the clearwing hummingbird moth (Hemaris thysbe), which is part of the Hawkmoth family (Sphingidae). They’re very active around here now.

Clearwings are often heard rather than seen, due to their size and the blurry hum of their rapid wing beats. They reportedly can achieve horizontal speeds of up to 12 miles an hour. However, it’s their ability to hover like a hummingbird that makes hummingbird moths special.

As you see in the accompanying photograph, they can hover in front of long-necked flowers such as those on Cow Vetch, insert their lengthy proboscises within the petals, and draw out nectar as part of an in-flight fueling maneuver. (We suspect that this ability makes them poor pollinators.)

The peek-a-boo parts of this species’ wings occur when these moths discard some of their wing scales early in life, perhaps as a camouflage feature to confuse predators. However, other species of hummingbird moths do not have see-through wings.

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