Hawk-moths

Bird, Bee or Moth?

The Hummingbird Hawk-moth, with two birds in its name, inspired this blog post. David recently got in touch to say that he had seen one in his garden on two occasions this year. His son managed to capture some video footage of another that visited Buddleja in his garden.

Hummingbird Hawk-moth on Buddleja plant – Video footage by James McCreedy


The hummingbird-type behaviour of this day-flying moth when feeding is obvious. But it’s not so obvious, to me anyway, why it should be called a Hawk-moth. It does look quite different at rest, and shares the general “jet-fighter”shape* of the other Hawk-moth species, which looks a bit like a stooping Peregrine Falcon, and presumably Hawks too. I haven’t yet seen a Sparrowhawk stooping, but it is a known method of hunting for that species.

Hummingbird Hawk-moth at rest, Rathlin Island, 28 June 2022 (Suzanne Belshaw)


David and James’s sightings show that you don’t have to travel to an off-shore island to see these lovely moths. I have seen them in suburban gardens in Lisburn in previous years. They are as close as we will get to seeing a Hummingbird in the wild this side of the Atlantic. Most Hummingbirds weigh less than a Wren. In fact, the smallest bird in the world is a Hummingbird species- you can watch a clip of Colin Stafford-Johnson with the (Cuban) Bee Hummingbird here.
Other Hawkmoth species may be found at rest during the day, but the only other truly day-flying species is the Narrow-Bordered Bee Hawk-moth. It is classified as Nationally Scarce*, and breeds at Slievenacloy, where the caterpillar food plant, Devils-Bit Scabious, is abundant. (Note that the flight season for the Narrow-bordered Bee Hawk-moth is over for 2023)

Narrow-bordered Bee Hawk-moth, 7 June 2018, Slievenacloy, (S Belshaw)


Elephant Hawk-moth

The most widespread and/or common Hawk-moth species we can encounter are the Elephant, Poplar and Eyed Hawk-moths. The Elephant Hawk-moth’s impressive caterpillar gives that species its name- it can appear to have a trunk (not projecting in the photograph below but see here and here for example)! Adult Elephant Hawk-moths can be seen feeding at dusk, but adults of the other species are not capable of feeding at all.

Elephant hawk-moth Deilephila elpenor, detail of individual, artwork – Chris Shields (rspb-images.com)
Elephant Hawk-moth caterpillar, 30 July 2018, Stoneyford (S Belshaw)

Moth Migration

The Hummingbird Hawk-Moth is in fact an immigrant species from Southern Europe and North Africa- although they breed here, they are a suspected resident only in the southwest of the UK*

A few other spectacular Hawk-moth species visit our shores as rare or scarce immigrants. I don’t claim to understand insect migration, but it is probably not comparable to the migration of, say, a Swallow that intentionally flies the UK to breed. It is something more like an irruption. Maybe! The Death’s-head Hawk-moth is large enough to carry a tracker, and a study on its migration has recently been published in the journal Science. That skull-patterned species, recorded around 160 times in Ireland since 1940 (MothsIreland map) feeds on honey while making a squeaking noise inside the hive and/or mimicking the scent of bees to avoid being stung! It also makes a squeaking noise when handled (see the Habitas account for the Death’s-head Hawk-moth).

The less common Bedstraw Hawk-moth (MothsIreland map) was trapped at Portmore Lough in 2019, and a Striped Hawkmoth visited Rathlin in 2022- read an account of the discovery here.

Let us know if you spot any of these impressive moths!

  • For accounts of a number of Hawk-moth species see this Woodland Trust blog post
  • The MothsIreland website referenced above has distribution maps for all moth species, both micro and macro

Suzanne

Poplar Hawk-moth, Portmore Lough 21st July 2023 (D. McCreedy)

*Concise Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland; Martin Townsend, Paul Waring and Richard Lewington (illustrator)