The Exhilarating Encounter with a Hummingbird Moth

by Sandra Tuszynska

About two weeks ago I have experienced something out of my ordinary. I was talking to a friend in her garden at around 6 pm, and as we stood by a red bottle brush (Callistemon), we heard a very loud buzzing sound. The 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.

Hummingbird Hawkmoth, <em>Macroglossum micacea</em>, Wilkesdale, SE QLD, Australia

Hummingbird Hawkmoth, Macroglossum micacea, Wilkesdale, SE QLD, Australia

I started craving for my camera. Soon my friend brought out her brand new Cannon 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 it’s beauty on camera. It was fast and I just stood there mesmerised by its disposition.

Macroglossum sp. Wilkedale, AustraliaAfter some time it seemed to have become accustomed to my prying presence and began to ignore me, completing it’s seemingly one pointed mission, as I ecstatically snapped away. I could have stayed there for ever, I did not want this experience to ever end. After a while though, it was time for me to leave this impressive experience behind. 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.

IMG_1236-Macroglossum sp. Wilkedale, AustraliaI 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!

IMG_1238-Macroglossum sp. Wilkedale, AustraliaSome 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 the moth must be from is Macroglossum, but I could not find photos of any similar species in Australia. This lead 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.

IMG_1242-Macroglossum sp. Wilkedale, AustraliaI emailed Helen Schwencke, a butterfly expert and author of Create More ButterfliesEarthling 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.

Macroglossum micacea, Wilkesdale, SE QLD, AustraliaI’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 massage 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.

IMG_1253-Macroglossum sp. Wilkedale, AustraliaI 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 hawkhmoths.

IMG_1255-Macroglossum sp. Wilkedale, AustraliaI 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 cololour 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 colourblind 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.

IMG_1258-Macroglossum sp. Wilkedale, AustraliaSo until next post, I hope you get to enjoy the incredible natural beauty that we still have around us.

About Mt Gravatt Environment Group

Mt Gravatt Environment Group is restoring a unique piece of Australain native bushland only ten minutes from Brisbane CBD.
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4 Responses to The Exhilarating Encounter with a Hummingbird Moth

  1. Fascinating post Sandra … extraordinary photos of an extraordinary creature and I am fascinated to follow your search for an id on this moth.

  2. Yvonne Bochow says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I just saw one of these in my paddock, feeding on lantana flowers (I know, I know). It came out of the scrub across the road and towards me, it was so loud I could hear it coming but couldn’t see it, it was so small ! I followed it around, it moves so quick! I have been hearing this sound for a couple of weeks now, just on sunset, in the scrub and have been putting the sound down to beetles coming out, but it’s these! I thought it was a bird at first but so small and after it left me behind I went to look in my bird book – not a thing to be found! Google? and your post came up, so thank you for reassuring me I’m not crazy. I’m in Far North Queensland, approx. 430m above sea level, on the edge of the Mowbray National Park, the area has been largely cleared for 80+ years, lots of regrowth scrub in gullies etc for 30+ years. Several residential 5 acre block suburbs developed since 1990’s.

    • Hi Yvonne

      I am glad you have had a similar encounter to mine. I can understand why you thought you were crazy, I thought I was too, and secretly hoped, it was a bird, but I know we don’t have hummingbirds in Australia. There are a number of species of these beauties, so I wonder which one you have seen? They are difficult to identify, I found. The area you live in sounds fascinating.

      With regards to your comment about lantana, for a while now I have been aware that it attracts so many butterfly species and small birds love to hide in it. It is no surprise since lantana seems to be the only flowering plant in some scrub and bush lands, actually supporting a large number of nectar feeding animals. Some research from the University of New England’s Avian Behavioural Ecology lab is showing that the removal of Lantana actually harms native fauna, causing depreciation in a number of species, due to these species having adapted to live in, on and by feeding on lantana. Here is the link http://theconversation.com/hold-the-spray-some-garden-weeds-are-helping-native-wildlife-47848

      Lovely to hear from you and feel your excitement about the hummingbird-moth Yvonne.

      Sandra

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