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.
Sphinx moths, also known as hawkmoths, fly fast and strong, with rapid wingbeats. Most are nocturnal, though some will visit flowers during the day. Sphinx moths are medium to large in size, with thick bodies and wingspans of 5 inches or more. 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, sphinx moth caterpillars can be quite large, some measuring as long as your pinky finger.
Most adults nectar on flowers, extending a long proboscis to do so. Caterpillars feed on a range of host plants, including both woody and herbaceous plants. Sphingid larvae usually have specific host plants, rather than being generalist feeders.
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. 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.
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.
Range and Distribution:
Worldwide, over 1200 species of sphinx moths have been described. About 125 species of Sphingidae live in North America. Sphinx moths live on all continents except Antarctica.