An Exhilarating Encounter with a Hummingbird Moth

Originally posted here on 16/02/2015 by Mt Gravatt Environment Group

by Sandra Tuszynska

 About two weeks ago I experienced something out of my ordinary. I was talking to a friend in her garden at around 6 pm. As we stood by a red bottle brush (Callistemon), we heard a very loud buzzing sound. A larger than normal pollinator hovered with it’s extremely rapidly beating wings near the flowers. It was just like a tiny hummingbird! We were so intrigued, we almost got fooled, but I knew that unfortunately, we do not have hummingbirds in Australia.

I started craving for my camera. Soon my friend brought out her brand new Canon hoping to maybe get a shot of this fascinating little creature, so we could get a closer look. As we have suspected this fantastic, hovering beauty was a hawkmoth. I was determined to get a closer pic and was very glad when my friend handed me her camera. I followed the very adamant creature trying to capture its beauty on camera. It was fast and I just stood there mesmerised by its disposition.

After some time it seemed to have become accustomed to my prying presence and began to ignore me, completing its seemingly single-minded mission, as I ecstatically snapped away. I could have stayed there for ever. I didn’t want this experience to ever end. After a while though, it was time for me to. As I walked away, I hoped that at least some of the photos would turn out, so I can identify the creature and perhaps share its beauty with others.

I asked my friend if I could borrow her SD card to copy the images onto my computer. I could not believe the treasure I have acquired. I felt so much joy, just like an excited child who has just received a brand new toy, or better yet a brand new puppy!

Some days later I sat down to get a closer look at the images and choose a few good ones to share. I also started doing some research to identify this hummingbird-like hawkmoth. This turned out to be a long-winded venture. I first looked up Google Pictures to see if any other person has posted a photo of this creature. I found a few similar moths but from China and Europe. The genus I began to suspect, wasMacroglossum, but I could not find photos of any similar species in Australia. This led me to find an incredible photographer, SINOBUG form Toowoomba, who has moved to China to photograph insects. Another fantastic resource I encountered is the Australian Wildlife Photography group on Flickr, where people post some of the most amazing images of Australian Wildlife.

I emailed Helen Schwencke, a butterfly expert and author of Create More Butterflies,  Earthling Enterprises. Helen suggested that it might be a Bee Hawk moth, Cephonodes spp., but after some comparison of the features between the moths I was in doubt. I’ve checked the Australian Museum site and images, and Ous-Lep a site dedicated to Australian Lepidoptera, the moth and butterfly order, but I could not see what I was looking for. It is not easy to compare a photo of a live specimen with a drawing or photos of dead specimen.

I’ve decided to ask What’s that Bug. This incredible site is run by passionate volunteers in the U.S., who identify insects from photos that people upload. To my surprise, I received a message from them in less than a day and here is what Daniel wrote:

Dear Sandra,

We believe we have identified your diurnal Hawkmoth as Macroglossum micacea based on images posted to Butterfly House where it states:  “The adult moths of this species have dark brown forewings sometimes with indistinct paler bands across them. They have even darker brown hind wings with two yellow areas by the inner margin. The moths have a wingspan of about 5 cms.”  Little other information is provided and the site does not indicate the species flies during the day.  The Sphingidae Taxonomic Inventory shows Queensland as the only part of Australia where sightings have been reported.  Since they are in the same genus, the similarity to Macroglossum stellatarum is understandable.  It is also pictured on the Papua Insects Foundation.  Most online images are of mounted specimens, and we are thrilled to be able to post your excellent action photos of this lovely diurnal Hawkmoth.

I was so grateful and absolutely delighted by this response. I notified Helen who suggested to Ask an Entomologist to confirm the moth’s ID. So I emailed Dr. Kathy Ebert to illuminate me further on this humming query. I have not heard back yet but I am patiently waiting. In the meantime I have started to do some research on hummingbird and other hawk moths.

I have downloaded some fascinating science articles on moth vision. Here is a preview of what’s to come in the next post:

Hummingbird moths are actually diurnal species, meaning that they forage during the day. Besides using olfactory or scent senses, they have colour or chromatic vision to identify their food source. Additionally they also use achromatic cues such as intensity of contrast or brightness to identify their preferred nectar sources. Like us and bees, they also use colour constancy, the ability to recognise a specific colour regardless of the illumination, which may change the shade or intensity of a colour. However, unlike us and bees, who are colour blind at night, nocturnal moths are able to discriminate flowers at starlight intensity. Moths, like us, bees and other animals learn to distinguish colours and can be trained to do so, if given a sweet reward.

So until next post, I hope you get to enjoy the incredible natural beauty that we still have around us.