Many years ago, when living in Portugal seemed like a distant dream, I had returned from the Mexican island of Cozumel where I was lucky enough to photograph the endemic Cozumel emerald hummingbird.
On my return, I was showing the photographs to a friend who mentioned that he had seen a hummingbird on one of the Spanish Balearic Islands. This was not possible, hummingbirds do not exist anywhere outside of the Americas and keeping them in captivity is extremely difficult. He showed me a video he took, and it soon became apparent that this sighting was indeed a hummingbird hawk-moth and, I’ll be honest, I had actually never heard of them.
Fast-forward a few years and we were settling into our new home in the hills of the Algarve in late August (four years to the date of writing this article!) and we seemed to be surrounded by many of these amazing moths feeding in our garden.
The hummingbird hawk-moth (scientific name of Macroglossum stellatarum, Portuguese name of mariposa-esfinge-colibri) can be found throughout Africa, Asia and Europe, breeding in the warmer climates of Southern Europe and Northern Africa. They are not to be confused with the American species which are often referred to by the same name. Here in Portugal they can be found all year round but are seen far more often in the summer months. During winter, they hide in small crevices but can be seen feeding during warmer periods.
The female can produce up to four broods a year and the tiny 1mm eggs (known as ova) are usually laid up to 200 eggs each time, on the Galium plant as they look remarkably like the flower buds. Just over one week later, the larvae hatch and are a clear yellow colour before turning green with a cream stripe with grey borders along the side and the usual horn at the rear found on most hawk-moth species.
As with all moth and butterfly species, the larvae will pupate and the silk cocoon is usually found amongst plant debris and leaves. Once this process is complete, the hummingbird hawk-moth emerges.
An adult has a wingspan of up to 45mm, having brown forewings with black lines, orange hindwings and a wide abdomen with the appearance of a fanned tail. They can be spotted flying in high temperatures exceeding 45 degrees.
Even though they are smaller than any species of hummingbird, there are many similarities. They hover in the same fashion and have a loud humming sound due to the fast wing beat, which is even faster than the bird species at around 85 beats every second! Even visually the hummingbird hawk-moth appears to have a feathery appearance, which is down to long hairs covering its body.
Feeding is accomplished with a long straw-like proboscis, which enables the moth to hover and stretch its 25mm structure to suck nectar from inside a flower. When not feeding, the proboscis is coiled up in front of the moth.
As with many hovering insects and animals, the moth moves its wings in a figure-of-eight pattern to create a vortex of air on the upper-side of the wings. These wing beats also make the hummingbird hawk-moth a very fast flier at over five metres per second.
It is believed that this species can identify many colours and, therefore, assist with its selection of feeding locations, but don’t be fooled by what appears to be a large pupil in the eye; this is an optical illusion. Like many insects, the eye is made up of multiple small facets that enable each eye to see in many directions at once and the illusion of the large black pupil is simply the effect of the facets absorbing the light from the direction you are looking from.
Here is an interesting tale from the D-Day in the Second World War. A swarm of hummingbird hawk-moths were spotted crossing the English Channel on the day of the Normandy Landings and have therefore given these moths the status of a lucky omen.
If you are lucky enough to spot these amazing moths during the day in your garden, keep a look out at dusk as you may be even more lucky to spot a similar but even bigger convolvulus hawk-moth. The first time I spotted one of these, I thought it was a bat. They have a wingspan of up to 120mm, but usually around 100mm. They fly and hover in the same fashion as the hummingbird hawk-moth but prefer sunset and dusk to feed.
By Craig Rogers
Craig Rogers is a wildlife and nature photographer from Wales now living in the Algarve, offering photography workshops. For more information, photographs and his blog visit www.craigrogers.photography