Sphingids of Spain: Is That a Hummingbird? No, It’s a Hawk-moth!

You might have noticed that we haven’t been blogging very much recently. The reason for this is because we’ve been on the road travelling through France and Spain. Tom cycled 1000 kilometres from Bristol, UK, to Toulouse, France, over eight days to raise money for Pancreatic Cancer UK in memory of his dad. Tom’s mum and I were his support-crew, setting up camp and keeping him fed and watered along the way. We are so proud of him! You can read more here.

Of course, after all that cycling, some well-earned critter-hunting was in order. The two beautiful specimens that will feature in this post and our next post are moths we found in the mountains of the Basque Country, Spain. They can also be found in the UK, so keep your eyes out for them.

Hawk-moths: Family Sphingidae

Hawk-moths are moths found in the family, Sphingidae. The adults are also known as sphinx-moths, and the caterpillars as hornworms (many of the larva have posterior ‘horns’). Their narrow wings, streamlined abdomens, and rapid and manoeuvrable flight are all distinguishing features of the family. Worldwide, there are approximately 1,450 species, of which 17 occur regularly in Great Britain.

Sphingidae Larva From From the British Butterflies and Moths { 1894] W. Furneaux.
Plate of Sphingidae Adults and Larva from the book, The British Butterflies and Moths [1894] by W. Furneaux. (You can view the entire book for free here!)

The Hummingbird Hawk-moth (Macroglossum stellatarum)

You can see the hummingbird hawk-moth in the UK from April to December, with smaller numbers recorded throughout the rest of the year. They are an immigrant from southern Europe and north Africa. They are widespread throughout UK, but are most numerous in southern and eastern England, south Wales and the Midlands. The amazing thing about this species is how easily they can be mistaken for an actual hummingbird.

Macroglossum stellatarum [HUMMINGBIRD HAWK MOTH] Goizueta, Basque Country 31.07.2017

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) says that every year people think they’ve seen hummingbirds in their gardens, when it’s actually a case of mistaken identity. I’ve been caught out by this, too! As we don’t have hummingbird hawk-moths in New Zealand, the first time I ever saw one was when I was living in Japan. I was cycling past a flowerbed in town when I saw it hovering and flitting from flower to flower. I’d never seen a hummingbird before, so I didn’t know what to make of it. I lept off my bike with great excitement to get a better look. That’s when I noticed it’s proboscis probing the flowers for nectar. A day-flying moth that flew and behaved like a bird…. An even more exciting find!

Macroglossum stellatarum [HUMMINGBIRD HAWK MOTH] Goizueta, Basque Country 31.07.2017 #1

Their resemblance to hummingbirds is a great example of convergent evolution – the process whereby organisms that are not closely related independently evolve similar traits as a result of having to adapt to similar environments or ecological niches. In this case, the hummingbird hawk-moth has evolved a body shape, wing movements and flight action that are almost identical the hummingbird. Their wings even make the same humming noise in flight. This is because they have both evolved to exploit the niche of an aerial nectar feeder.

Macroglossum stellatarum [HUMMINGBIRD HAWK MOTH] Goizueta, Basque Country 31.07.2017 #1

We loved watching the hummingbird hawk-moths feeding on the buddleja. It was such a wonderful sight. Keep your eyes out, and hopefully you can see one, too.

Part Two Coming Soon: The Broad-bordered Bee Hawk-moth (Hemaris fuciformis) – Now live! Click here.

References and Further Reading

Hawk-moths (Sphingidae)

Motyle Europy Website – Sphingidae of Europe –https://www.lepidoptera.eu/Thumbnails2.php?country=XX&family=Sphingidae&mode=up
(Retrieved 6 August, 2017)

The RSPB Website – Hummingbirds and Hawkmoths – https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/read-and-learn/watching-birds/identify/hummingbirdhawkmoth/
(Retrieved 6 August, 2017)

Wikipedia Website – List of moths of Great Britain (Sphingidae) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_moths_of_Great_Britain_(Sphingidae)
(Retrieved 6 August, 2017)

Wikipedia Website – Sphingidae – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sphingidae
(Retrieved 6 August, 2017)

Hummingbird Hawk-moths (Macroglossum stellatarum)

Butterfly Conservation Website – Humming-bird Hawk-moth – http://butterfly-conservation.org/51-1087/humming-bird-hawk-moth.html
(Retrieved 6 August, 2017)

Motyle Europy Website – Macroglossum stellatarum (Linnaeus, 1758) – https://www.lepidoptera.eu/show.php?ID=168&country=EN
(Retrieved 6 August, 2017)

UK Moths Website – Hummingbird Hawk-moth Macroglossum stellatarum – http://www.ukmoths.org.uk/species/macroglossum-stellatarum
(Retrieved 6 August, 2017)

The Wildlife Trusts Website – Hummingbird Hawk-moth – http://www.wildlifetrusts.org/species/hummingbird-hawk-moth
(Retrieved 6 August, 2017)

Wikipedia Website – Hummingbird hawk-moth – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hummingbird_hawk-moth
(Retrieved 6 August, 2017)


22 Comments Add yours

  1. naturebackin says:

    Interesting post and photos of an amazing moth. So sorry about the loss of your dad. The fund-raising 1000 km cycle journey is a lovely tribute.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We’re happy that you enjoyed our post 🙂. Thank you very much for your kind words also. ❤ It is sweet of you to think about us.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. allmydealsindia says:

    Beautiful post very informative

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Emeli Smith says:

    I really loved this post and definitely gained a lot of info from it!🤓😁
    Your pictures are very beautiful too!

    So sorry for your loss, hope your well❣️

    Emeli xxx

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you very much, Emeli. 🙂 We’re glad that you enjoyed our post!
    Thank you for your kind condolences also. ❤


  5. earthbysea says:

    Hiiii 🙂

    This is fantastic!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. earthbysea says:

    Oops! I wasn’t finished haha! This takes me right back to an early evening sitting in my kitchen last summer. I nearly threw a cup of tea around myself when I could have sworn I was looking at a hummingbird right outside my window hovering from flower to flower! I remember thinking “Surely not, this can’t be right! There are no hummingbirds in Ireland!!” I couldn’t google it quick enough! That was the first time I had even heard of a hawk-moth let alone see one! It was all very exciting! I am yet to see one again in the garden, funny though……it was at the exact flower you have in your picture there, just a different colour. I must grow it again! ***note to self***

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Fotohabitate says:

    Great pictures and informations of a fantastic insect! I find your very nice blog on Ecploring Colour from Liz and I’m happy about that!
    So I looking forward to read more about our wonderful world of animals! Best wishes Simone

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Simone,
      Thank you for your comments! And, thank you to Liz for helping you find our blog! 🙂
      We’re happy to hear that you enjoyed this post. They really are fantastic moths – they were a pleasure to observe!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Graham says:

    Wow! A moth in flight in perfect clarity! Can I ask what kind of camera you use?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Graham,

      The photos with the moth in perfect focus were taken with a flash. Tom was holding the camera whilst I was holding the flash, and we followed that moth from flower to flower all over the bush until we had the shots.
      When Tom get’s back from work, I’ll let him tell you the camera set-up. 🙂



      1. Graham says:

        Thank you. And I thought you just casually snapped it! 😄 Team effort! Love it!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Hey Graham! I think at the time, I was using a Nikon D7000 with a Tamron 90mm 1:1 Macro lens + SB700 flash. I have since moved on to a D500, Nikon 105mm 1:1 Macro and still use the SB700 flash. I found that with enough light and a fast shutter and wide aperture I could freeze the action and get much of the scene in focus.
        What do you take your snaps with?



      3. Graham says:

        Hi Tom. Thanks for this. Nothing quite so advanced for me. I have a Canon Powershot SX50, a bridge camera that goes up to 100x on the zoom (I also have a macro lens I can attach to it if needed)… but all assuming you can hold it steady! 😄 You take some amazing pics, nice one.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. blhphotoblog says:

    So difficult to photograph, you did well, I managed a couple of good images myself this past summer.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was certainly a case of perseverance and teamwork to get the shots, haha!

      Fab, Brian! Do you have them up on your blog? I’d love to see them. 🙂


      Liked by 1 person

      1. blhphotoblog says:

        The best one is on my blog Emma, click on the HOME page portfolio of images and select ‘Sheringham Park’ Cheers Brian.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Found it! What a lovely shot.



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