Moths in the Sphingidae (hawkmoth) family 1, 2

Sphingidae Family

This family contains the swift-flying hawkmoths, they are known as hawkmoths as their flight is fast and manoeuvrable, and as they are relatively large, this family is one of the better studied families of moths. There are around 1200 species worldwide; most are tropical, but there are 18 species in the U. K., although only 9 are resident; the other 9 are immigrants.

The eggs are usually attached to the foodplant either singly or in pairs.

Below is the typical caterpillar body shape. Many of the caterpillars have eyespots and a horn at the rear end. Many are day feeders and are well camouflaged on their foodplant.

Sphingidae typical caterpillar shape

Below is a typical Sphingid pupa. Pupation is usually in the soil or leaf litter beneath the foodplant.

hawk moth pupa

The adults are usually fairly large with rather stout bodies. Adult females are usually larger than males. Adult males rest with the tip of their abdomen curled upwards. The forewings are narrow and pointed, see below. Many are nocturnal, but the bee and hummingbird hawkmoths are day fliers. Many have a proboscis much longer than their body enabling them to drink nectar while hovering. They are significant plant pollinators.

The front wings can be twice as long as the rear wings. And the rapid wing beating, and habit of many in the family of hovering whilst feeding makes some of these moths resemble hummingbirds.

A few species have clear patches in their wings, and are sometimes mistaken for bumblebees. Worldwide the wingspan ranges from 16 - 90mm.

Convolvulus hawk moth, Agrius convolvuli

Convolvulus hawk moth, Agrius convolvuli

The Convolvulus hawk moth, Agrius convolvuli, above, is found in most of Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. It does not breed in the U. K., but migrates from North Africa, and has been seen as far north as Orkney. The adult wingspan is 80 - 120 mm. making it the largest moth found in the U. K. It is usually seen hovering over flowers around sunset using its very long proboscis (around 10 cm long) to feed on the wing. Its proboscis is long enough to reach the nectaries of Nicotiana sylvestris, one of its favourite flowers. In the U. K. adults are seen from June to December, but are most common in late summer. Adults can live for about five weeks.

The adult male has darker markings than the female, and during the day they rest on tree trunks and stones where their markings help to camouflage them. If you try to pick one up you may get a surprise as they have sharp spines on their legs making them painful to handle. The adult eyes are very large with around 27,000 facets, giving them excellent low-light vision. They locate their flowers by both sight and smell.

The caterpillar feeds on bindweed and can grow up to 100 mm long.

Death's head hawkmoth, Acherontia atropos

Death's head hawk moth

Above and below is the Death's head hawkmoth, Acherontia atropos adult and pupa, is the largest British hawkmoth, with a wing span of up to 15 cm, front wing length 5.2 - 6.0 cm. A skull pattern in the hairs of the thorax and a yellow banded abdomen. The adults are usually immigrants from the continent and arrive in the autumn, but are unable to overwinter. The adults can make a mouse-like squeaking sound by expelling air through their proboscis past a structure that vibrates like a saxophone reed. Adults usually fly from August to October, but they can be seen earlier. Lepidopterists can also buy eggs to rear in captivity. Eggs are laid on potato plants, but in captivity they can be reared on privet. Usually they are restricted to the south east of England.

Death's head hawkmoth

Smerinthus ocellata, the Eyed hawk moth

Eyed hawkmoth

Smerinthus ocellata, the Eyed hawk moth. With its wings spread it is easy to see where the Eyed hawkmoth, above, gets its common name. The eye markings are hidden when the moth is at rest, but flashed when it is disturbed. When it is disturbed and exposing its eye spots it rocks to and fro, and this has been observed to frighten off birds as the moth has some resemblance to a cat's head. It can be found in woodland, hedgerows, riversides, parks and orchards in Europe and temperate Asia, but is absent from Scotland.

Caterpillar foodplants include sallows, willow, aspen, poplar, birch, hazel and apple. Caterpillar length when fully grown is up to 80 mm, and it has the typical Sphingid horn at the rear (see the drawing near the top of the page), which is grey/blue. It is bluish-green to yellow-green with tiny white spots and pale stripes, and a green head with two yellow stripes. The spiracles (breathing holes) are very easy to see as they are white with a red rim.

The Eyed hawkmoth has one generation a year. Eggs are laid singly or in pairs on the underside of the foodplant leaf in May or June, and hatch in 2 - 3 weeks. Caterpillars feed from June to September, and pupate in cocoon just below the soil surface, near the base of the foodplant. The pupa is a shiny brown/black. Adults emerge in Early May or June and fly through July. Adults do not feed. Fore wing length is 36 - 44 mm and wingspan is 70 - 80 mm.

Elephant hawkmoth, Deilephila elpenor

Deilephila elpenor, the Elephant hawkmoth, below, is found throughout Europe (except in the extreme north) Russia, China, Japan, Korea and northern India. In the U. K. it is found throughout except in northern Scotland, although the one below was found sauntering along a path in Torphins in North East Scotland. It has been introduced into British Columbia.

Elephant hawkmoth, Deilephila elpenor, caterpillar

Elephant hawkmoth, Deilephila elpenor, caterpillar

The caterpillars feed from July to September. The caterpillar grows up to 80 mm long, and is found in meadows, woodland clearings, waste ground and gardens where its foodplants grow. The foodplants include willow herb, bedstraw, bogbean, evening primrose, and it will also eat fuchsia.

As you can see from the photograph above, when the caterpillar is fully grown the head is relatively small. When the caterpillar is disturbed it draws its head into its body causing segments 4 and 5 with the eye spots to swell up, see below, making it look snake-like. This is enough to deter some predators, and was certainly enough to frighten my dog. And if that were not enough it has a little hooked horn on segment 11. In the photograph below you can also see a spiracle below each eye spot

Elephant hawk moth head pulled in

The photograph below is a close up of a spiracle. This is one of the holes down the sides of insects through which they breathe.

spiracle of caterpillar

Below is a close up photograph of the spiracles running down the side of the Elephant hawkmoth cocoon.

Elephant hawkmoth cocoon spiracles

There is one generation a year in the U. K., although in warmer regions there can be two generations a year. The eggs are laid singly or in small groups on the underside of the leaves of the foodplant in June, and the caterpillars hatch around two weeks later.

Elephant hawkmoth pupa

Pupation occurs in late summer or early autumn in a cocoon in leaf litter on the ground or just below the surface. I got the pupa above by allowing the soil to dry out completely, then raked through it gently with my fingers. All the debris around the empty pupa fell away. Normally the adult emerges the following May or June, although there are sometimes adults emerging in late summer.

Cocoon from which Amblyjoppa proteus has emerged

The cocoon above held an Elephant hawkmoth that had been parasitised by an Ichneumonid wasp, probably Ambyljoppa proteus. Notice the different way of exiting the cocoon. I saw the wasp in my greenhouse, but had nothing to catch it with, and it was too fast to photograph. It was huge - 20 - 25 mm long. It looked all black, but I have found out that it can have yellow marking on its legs, and that females have a group of whitish segments on the antennae. I wish I had caught it.

Elephant hawkmoth adult

The adult is a night flyer, flying from May to August, and feeds on nectar, especially from honeysuckle. You can see from the photograph above that it has a really long tongue, so can easily reach deep into the honeysuckle flower to reach the nectar. I believe it also drinks from nicotiana. Forewing length is 28 - 33 mm, and wingspan is 50 - 70 mm. Male and female have similar colouring.

Elephant hawkmoth

Laothoe populi, the Poplar hawkmoth

Laothoe populi Poplar hawkmoth

Above is Laothoe populi the Poplar hawkmoth, found across the Palearctic and in the Near East. It is common in the U. K. where it is found in damp woodlands, hedgerows, riversides and parks. Its foodplants are poplar, aspen, sallow, willow. In the U. K. there is one generation a year.

Eggs are laid singly or in small groups on the underside of the foodplant leaf in June. They hatch around 2 or 3 weeks later. The caterpillars feed until September. The caterpillar body length is up to 65 mm. They pupate just below the ground surface in cocoons.

The following May the adult emerges. In warmer areas a second emergence of adults may occur in late summer or early autumn. The photograph above shows the characteristic resting pose. The forewing length is 30 - 40 mm. Adults fly from May to August, and like others in this family, the adults do not feed.

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