We were very excited to spot a Hummingbird Hawk Moth in the Ulula garden last year. We have not mown the farmhouse lawn and the drive verges for the last two summers which has resulted in a beautiful carpet of yellows, whites and purples as flowers, that we didn’t even know were growing in the lawn, were able to bloom. Food for all sorts of pollinators, among the flowers was lady’s bedstraw, which we have discovered is a favourite food of this beautiful moth’s caterpillars.
The hummingbird hawkmoth is an unsung pollinator in our gardens; it migrates to the UK all the way from Southern Europe every year! It can be seen hovering over flowers, feeding with its long proboscis; its wings move so quickly that it ‘hums’.
The caterpillars can be found from June to October, but are most frequently found in August. They overwinter as adults in unheated outbuildings and in crevices and holes in walls and trees, pupating in a cocoon spun close to the ground, among the foliage of the foodplant or in leaf litter.
The hummingbird hawkmoth is a small, day-flying hawkmoth. It is a summer visitor to the UK, and, in some years, it can be common and may be seen in gardens, hovering like a hummingbird as it feeds on the nectar of honeysuckle, red valerian and other flowers. It can also be found along woodland edges, and on heathland and scrub. The caterpillars feed on various species of bedstraw, so the female adult moths lay their eggs on the buds or flowers of these plants.
One of our few day-flying moths, it is believed that this intriguing species can travel as fast as 12mph, however, it’s more robust than many of our butterflies in that it continues to fly and feed in most weather conditions, even rain.
How to identify
With two sets of wings (the front is grey-brown and the hind orange), these moths are attracted to brightly coloured blooms, such as valerian, lavender and verbena. Those wings span 2in and beat 70–80 times a second, emitting an audible hum, and allow them to hover over plants, an ability that means these industrious migrants can fill up on the high-octane fuel of nectar they need to power their busy lives.
The hawk-moth’s inch-long, curved proboscis — which uncoils as they feed — allows it to suck up nectar from flowers that have a long corolla, such as honeysuckle, giving the moths a clear advantage over other nectar-guzzling insects. Furthermore, they are clever, as they remember to revisit high-nectar-yielding plants.
Hummingbird hawkmoths may overwinter here in mild years but perish in cold weather. Usually seen throughout the British Isles between the months of June and September, it is believed that numbers are boosted later in the summer by a home-reared crop.
When the male — which is about the same size as the female — has sought out a partner, they can be seen chasing about in a loving dogfight. After mating, she seeks out bedstraws (low-growing, perennial herbs) and wild madder on which to lay her eggs, ensuring the larvae have a food plant to dine on.
Females lay about 200 tiny, pale-green eggs — each carefully deposited to look like a bud of the host plant — on separate plants, which gives emerging caterpillars the best chance of survival.
In six to eight days, the larvae appears. Small and yellow, with horns on their rear end, they grow quickly, gradually turning green with grey stripes along the body, as those distinctive horns become blue. Some larvae even turn brown, but most get darker as they near the end of the caterpillar stage and stop feeding.
Fully grown within about 30 days, they begin to journey down the stem of the plant to pupate in litter at the base of the plant, from where it can take three weeks for adult moths to appear in all their glory, ready to thrill and captivate more casual observers.
If climate change carries on at this pace, it will not be long until these diminutive flying doppelgangers become permanent residents of the UK.
Fuzzy little caterpillar crawling crawling on the ground
Fuzzy little caterpillar nowhere nowhere to be found
Though we’ve looked and looked and hunted everywhere around
When the little caterpillar found his furry coat too tight
Then a snug cocoon he made him spun of silk so soft and light
Rolled himself away within in — slept there day and night
See how this cocoon is stirring, now a little head we spy
What! Is this our caterpillar spreading gorgeous wings to dry?
Soon the free and happy creature flutters gaily by