Moths in the Sphingidae and Hepialidae families

Sphingidae and Hepalidae species featured on this page

Latin name Common name Family
Hemaris officinalis Snowberry clearwing Sphingidae
Cocytius lucifer Hawk moth Sphingidae
Agrius convolvuli Convolvulus hawkmoth Sphingidae
Acherontia atropos Death's head hawkmoth Sphingidae
Xanthopan morgani   Sphingidae
Hepialus humuli Ghost swift moth, Ghost moth, Swift moth Hepialidae

Sphingidae typical caterpillar shapehawk moth pupa

Sphingidae Family.

This family contains the swift-flying hawkmoths, they are known as hawkmoths as their flight is fast and maneuverable, and they are relatively large. There are around 1050 species worldwide; most are tropical, but there are 18 species in the U. K., although only 9 are resident; the other 8 are immigrants.

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

On the left is the typical caterpillar body shape. Many of the caterpillars have eyespots and a horn at their rear end.

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.

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 32 - 155 mm.

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

In the 19th century botanists were mystified by the Madagascan orchid, Angraecum sesquipedale, as they couldn't see how it could be pollinated. They knew something was pollinating it, but what? You see the nectar was to be found only in the last 1 cm at the end of a narrow spur 20 - 30 cm long.

Darwin was shown the flower. It is large and white, and the nectar is thick and fragrant. So this told him that in the thick jungle, the scent and the whiteness of the flower were probably the things that attracted the pollinator. Now white fragrant flowers the world over are often pollinated at night by moths. So Darwin predicted that a moth with a tongue (proboscis) of 30 cm or more was the elusive pollinator. At that time no such moth had been found, nor was one found in Darwin's life time. But 40 years after he had made his prediction such a moth was found, Xanthopan morgani subspecies praedicta.

Convolvulus hawk moth, Agrius convolvuli

Convolvulus hawk moth, Agrius convolvuli

The Convolvulus hawk moth, left, 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 m 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.

Cocytius lucifer, hawk moth adult with proboscis extended into flower

Cocytius lucifer

On the left is Cocytius lucifer, a hawk moth found in Mexico and South America. From this preserved specimen you see that it has an extremely long proboscis. The adult wingspan is 14 - 16 cm, and it flies throughout the year. The females attract the males by releasing a pheromone from a gland at the tip of the abdomen. The caterpillars are green and white and hairless. They grow up to 11.8 cm long.

Snowberry clearwing moth, Hemaris officinalis.  Family: Sphingidae

Hemaris officinalis, the snowberry clearwing

Left is Hemaris officinalis, the snowberry clearwing. Found all over the US. Adults are often mistaken for bumblebees. As you can see in the photograph the wings have large clear patches which is where the common name comes from. Even when feeding the wings beat fast, so that they are almost a blur. They feed on lantana, honeysuckle, snowberry, lilac and thistles. The adults are day fliers, and the wingspan is 3.2 - 5.0 cm. The caterpillars feed on snowberry, honeysuckle and dogbane. They pupate in cocoons in leaf litter.

Death's head hawkmoth, Acherontia atropos

The Death's head hawkmoth, Acherontia atropos, 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.

Hepialidae family, the swift and ghost moths

The Hepalidae are considered "primitive" moths. There are 500 species world wide. They are widespread in central and northern Europe, but only 5 British species; all fairly common.

The adults fly from dusk to darkness, then take up the typical resting position seen below in the Ghost moth. In many species the males make display flights or dances to attract females, sometimes releasing scents detectable even by humans as they dance. The adults are all medium to large sized (females usually larger than males) with short antennae, and all - as the common name implies, are swift and strong fliers.

The British adults do not have a functioning proboscis, so they cannot feed. As can be seen in the Ghost moth below the antennae are short.

The caterpillars tend to feed on roots at ground level, and are usually light coloured. Many take 2 years to reach adulthood.

Hepialus humuli, the Ghost swift moth, Ghost moth, Swift moth

Ghost swift moth caterpillar, Hepialus humuli caterpillar
Ghost swift moth cocoon, Hepialus humuli cocoonGhost swift moth adult, Hepialus humuli adultGhost swift moth adult, Hepialus humuli adult

The Ghost moth's range extends eastward across Europe to western Asia. In Britain it is common.

The eggs are laid in June. Actually they are not really laid, but are scattered by the female as she flies over the foodplants. There is usually one generation a year.

The caterpillar (above) hatches after around 2 weeks, and feeds underground on plant roots until the following May, although some may not pupate until the following year. It is up to 40 mm long, pale dirty- white with a shiny red-brown head and grey-brown spots. It is found in fields, gardens, and anywhere its foodplants grow. It feeds on a variety of herbaceous plants including grasses, nettles, docks and wild strawberries.

Pupation takes place underground in a brown cocoon (see above). The pupa works its way to the soil surface before the adult emerges, and the husk of an empty one can sometimes be found sticking out of the ground with just the tail section in the soil.

The adult (left) hatches out at the end of May and in June. The adult male (left) is pure white, giving it its common name, and the female is larger and a yellowish - tan colour. The male dances over the grasses at dusk to attract the female to mate. It is believed that the male may have UV patterns invisible to humans, but visible to the females sitting in the grass.

Wing length is 21 - 35 mm with the female being larger than the male. It is the largest species of the family found in Britain. The adults fly until early August. The males gather in groups after dusk to attract females.

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