Another Reason to Grow Petunias

Petunias are one of the favorite nectar sources of hummingbird moths–in this case, a White-lined Sphinx Moth (Hyles lineata). According to local news sources, my geographic area experienced a “population explosion” of the White-lined Sphinx Moth this year. I can’t imagine why, but I’m delighted.

White-lined Sphinx Moth (Hyles lineata)

White-lined Sphinx Moth
(Hyles lineata)

This enchanting creature made its appearance late Friday afternoon. Thankfully, my camera was close by, although I should have set it to “sports” mode, since these moths are faster than any running athlete. After taking numerous photos (the one you see is the only one that wasn’t blurred by rapid movement), I sat down to watch for 45 minutes as he harvested every single flower in both pots. It was the next best thing to being visited by a hummingbird; the moth even arches its body when feeding, just like a hummingbird. (Click on the photo for a nice close-up.)

Unlike a hummingbird, if the moth encounters an upward-facing flower, it will gently balance its long legs on the petals while feeding. The moth’s proboscis (generally considered a “nose”, but used more like a long, slender tongue) unfurls when feeding, then curls back up like one of those tubular paper noise makers given out at birthday parties.

The adult moth’s coloration is handsome, but subdued, except for the gorgeous splash of hot pink on the hind wings. However, the larvae can be quite colorful:  either apple green, yellow or black. Since the larvae are hornworms, and occasionally feed on tomato plants, they can be mistaken for tomato hornworms, though Sphinx Moth larvae generally prefer purslane, if available.

Adults are active from April to November, as long as appropriate food sources are available and the temperature is at least 50°F (10C). They are one of the few moths that feed during the day, although they are more active from dusk to dawn. Larvae burrow several inches below ground before winter. The following spring, they will metamorphose into adults. The White-lined Sphinx Moth is found throughout the U.S., in Central America, the West Indies, and Europe. In cooler regions, they are migrants. In warmer regions, there may be two or three broods each year.

If you’d like to attract the adult moth to your garden, try planting apple or crabapple trees, lilacs, pentas, petunias, honeysuckle, columbine, or trumpet vine. The larvae, in addition to purslane, enjoy dining on members of the Evening Primrose family.

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