Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Insects by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Insects by  Anna Botsford Comstock

The Hummingbird, or Sphinx, Moths

Teacher's Story

dropcap image F during the early evening, when all the swift humming birds are abed, we hear the whirr of rapidly moving wings and detect the blur of them in the twilight, as if the creature carried by them hung entranced before some deep-throated flower, and then whizzed away like a bullet, we know that it was a hummingbird, or sphinx, moth. And when we see a caterpillar with a horn on the wrong end of the body, a caterpillar which, when disturbed, rears threateningly, then we may know it is the sphinx larva. And when we find a strange, brown segmented shell, with a long jug handle at one side, buried in the earth as we spade up the garden in the spring, then we know we have the sphinx pupa.

The sphinx was a vaudeville person of ancient mythology who went about boring people by asking them riddles; and, if they could not give the right answers, very promptly ate them up. Although Linnæus gave the name of sphinx to these moths, because he fancied he saw a resemblance in the resting or threatening attitude of the larvæ to the Egyptian Sphinx, there are still other resemblances. These insects present three riddles: The first one is, "Am I a humming bird?" the second, "Why do I wear a horn or an eye-spot on the rear end of my body where horns and eyes are surely useless?" and the third, "Why do I look like a jug with a handle and no spout?"


Sphinx larva in sphinx attitude.

From Manual for the Study of Insects.

The sphinx moths are beautiful and elegant creatures. They have a distinctly tailor-made appearance, their colors are so genteel and "the cut" so perfect. They have long, rather narrow, strong wings which enable them to fly with extraordinary rapidity. The hind wings are shorter, but act as one with the front wings. The body is stout and spindle-shaped. The antennæ are thickened in the middle or toward the tip, and in many species have the tip recurved into a hook. Their colors show most harmonious combinations and most exquisite contrasts; the pattern, although often complex, shows perfect refinement. Olive, tan, brown and ochre, black and yellow, and the whole gamut of greys, with eyespots or bands athwart the hind wings of rose color or crimson, are some of the sphinx color schemes.


The tobacco sphinx moth with tongue extended.

Photo by M. V. Slingerland.

Most of the sphinx moths have remarkable long tongues, being sometimes twice the length of the body. When not in use, the tongue is curled like a watch spring in front and beneath the head; but of what possible use is such a long tongue! That is a story for certain flowers to tell, the flowers which have the nectar wells far down at the base of tubular corollas, like the petunia, the morning glory or the nasturtium; such flowers were evidently developed to match the long-tongued insects. Some of these flowers, like the jimson weed and nicotina, open late in the day so as to be ready for these evening visitors. In some cases, especially in the orchids, there is a special partnership established between one species of flower and one species of sphinx moths. The tobacco sphinx is an instance of such partnership; this moth visits tobacco flowers and helps develop the seeds by carrying pollen from flower to flower; and in turn it lays its eggs upon the leaves of this plant, on which its great caterpillar feeds and waxes fat, and in high dudgeon often disputes the smoker's sole right to the "weed." Tobacco probably receives enough benefit from the ministrations of the moth to compensate for the injury it suffers from the caterpillars; but the owner of the tobacco field, not being a plant, does not look at it in this equitable manner.


The moth of the sphinx caterpillar, which feeds on tomato.

Photo by M. V. Slingerland.

The sphinx caterpillars are leaf eaters and each species feeds upon a limited number of plants which are usually related; for instance, one feeds upon both the potato and tomato; another upon the Virginia creeper and grapes. In color these caterpillars so resemble the leaves that they are discovered with difficulty. Those on the Virginia creeper, which shades porches, may be located by the black pellets of waste material which fall from them to the ground; but even after this unmistakable hint I have searched a long time to find the caterpillar in the leaves above; its color serves to hide the insect from birds which feed upon it eagerly. In some species, the caterpillars are ornamented with oblique stripes along the sides, and in others the stripes are lengthwise. There is often a great variation in color between the caterpillars of the same species; the tomato worm is sometimes green and sometimes black.


The pupa of the common tomato sphinx caterpillar.

Note that the part encasing the long tongue is free and looks like the handle of a jug.

Photo by M. V. Slingerland.

The horn on the rear end is often in the young larva of different color than the body; in some species it stands straight up and in some it is curled toward the back. It is an absolutely harmless projection and does not sting nor is it poisonous. However, it looks awe-inspiring and perhaps protects its owner in that way. The Pandora  sphinx has its horn curled over its back in the young stage but when fully grown the horn is shed; in its place is an eyespot which, if seen between the leaves, is enough to frighten away any cautious bird fearing the evil eye of serpents. The sphinx caterpillars have a habit, when disturbed or when resting, of rearing up the front part of the body, telescoping the head back into the thoracic segments, which in most species are enlarged, and assuming a most threatening and ferocious aspect. If attacked they will swing sidewise, this way and then that, making a fierce crackling sound meanwhile, well calculated to fill the trespasser with terror. When resting they often remain in this lifted attitude for hours, absolutely rigid.


Tailor-made moth, the adult of the Myron sphinx.

Photo by M. V. Slingerland.

The six true legs are short with sharp, little claws. There are four pairs of fleshy prolegs, each foot being armed with hooks for holding on to leaf or twig; and the large, fleshy prop-leg on the rear segment is able to clasp a twig like a vise. All these fleshy legs are used for holding on, while the true legs are used for holding the edges of the leaf where the sidewise working jaws can cut it freely. These caterpillars do clean work, leaving only the harder and more woody ribs of the leaves. The myron caterpillar seems to go out of its way to cut off the stems of both the grape and Virginia creeper.


The eggs of the Myron sphinx.

Photo by M. V. Slingerland.

There are nine pairs of spiracles, a pair on each segment of the abdomen and on the first thoracic segment. The edges of these air openings are often strikingly colored. Through the spiracles the air is admitted into all the breathing tubes of the body around which the blood flows and is purified; no insect breathes through its mouth. These caterpillars, like all others, grow by shedding the skeleton skin, which splits down the back.

Often one of these caterpillars is seen covered with white objects which the ignorant, who do not know that caterpillars never lay eggs, have called, eggs. But the sphinx moths at any stage would have horror of such eggs as these! They are not eggs but are little silken cocoons spun by the larvæ of a hymenopterous parasite. It is a tiny, four-winged "fly" which lays its eggs within the caterpillar. The little grubs which hatch from these eggs feed upon the fleshy portions of the caterpillar until they get their growth, at which time the poor caterpillar is almost exhausted; and then they have the impudence to come out and spin their silken cocoons and fasten them to the back of their victim. Later, they cut a little lid to their silken cells which they lift up as they come out into the world to search for more caterpillars.


A full-grown caterpillar of the Myron sphinx.

As soon as the sphinx larva has obtained its growth, it descends and burrows into the earth. It does not spin any cocoon but packs the soil into a smooth-walled cell in which it changes to a pupa. In the spring the pupa works its way to the surface of the ground and the moth issues. In the case of the tomato and tobacco sphinx pupa, the enormously long tongue has its case separate from the body of the pupa, which makes the "jug handle." The wing cases and the antennæ cases can be distinctly seen. In the case of the other species the pupæ have the tongue case fast to the body. The larva of the Myron sphinx does not enter the ground, but draws a few leaves about it on the surface of the ground, fastens them with silk and there changes to a pupa.


A "cake walk."   The caterpillars of the Myron sphinx in attitude of defence.

Photo by M. V. Slingerland.

References—Caterpillars and their Moths, Elliot and Soule; Moths and Butterflies, Dickerson; Moths and Butterflies, Ballard; Manual for the Study of Insects, Comstock.

Lesson LXXV

The Hummingbird, or Sphinx, Moths

Leading thought—The sphinx caterpillars have a slender horn or eyespot on the last segment of the body. When disturbed or when resting they rear the front part of the body in a threatening attitude. They spin no cocoons but change to pupæ in the ground. The adults are called hummingbird moths, because of their swift and purring flight. Many flowers depend upon the sphinx moths for carrying their pollen.

Method—The sphinx caterpillar found on the potato or tobacco, or one of the species feeding upon the Virginia creeper is in September available in almost any locality for this lesson. The caterpillars should be placed in a breeding cage in the schoolroom. Fresh food should be given them every day and moist earth be placed in the bottom of the cages. It is useless for the amateur to try to rear the adults from the pupæ in breeding cages. The moths may be caught in nets during the evening when they are hovering over the petunia beds. These may be placed on leaves in a tumbler or jar for observation.

The Caterpillar


1. On what plant is it feeding? What is its general color? Is it striped? What colors in the stripes? Are they oblique or lengthwise stripes? Are all the caterpillars the same color?


The pupæ of the Myron sphinx within the cocoons.

Photo by M. V. Slingerland.

2. Can you find the caterpillar easily when feeding? Why is it not conspicuous when on the plant? Of what use is this to the caterpillar?

3. Note the horn on the end of the caterpillar. Is it straight or curled? Is it on the head end? What color is it? Do you think it is of any use to the caterpillar? Do you think it is a sting? If there is no horn, is there an eye-spot on the last segment? What color is it? Can you think of any way in which this eye-spot protects the caterpillar?

4. Which segments of the caterpillar are the largest? When the creature is disturbed what position does it assume? How does it move? What noise does it make? Do you think this attitude scares away enemies? What position does it assume when resting? Do you think that it resembles the Egyptian Sphinx when resting?

5. How many true legs has this caterpillar? How does it use them when feeding? How many prolegs has it? How are these fleshy legs used? How are they armed to hold fast to the leaf or twig? Describe the hind or prop-leg. How is it used?

6. Do you see the breathing pores or spiracles along the sides of the body? How many are there? How are they colored? How does the caterpillar breathe? Do you think it can breathe through its mouth?

7. How does the sphinx caterpillar grow? Watch your caterpillar and see it shed its skin. Where does the old skin break open? How does the new, soft skin look? Do the young caterpillars resemble the full-grown ones?

8. Describe how the caterpillar eats. Can you see the jaws move? Does it eat up the plant clean as it goes?

9. Have you ever found the sphinx caterpillar covered with whitish, oval objects? What are these? Does the caterpillar look plump or emaciated? Explain what these objects are and how they came to be there.

10. Where does the caterpillar go to change to a pupa? Does it make cocoons? How does the pupa look? Can you see the long tongue case, the wing cases, the antennæ cases?

The Moth

1. Where did you find this moth? Was it flying by daylight or in the dusk? How did its swift moving wings sound? Was it visiting flowers? What flowers? Where is the nectar in these flowers?

2. What is the shape of the moth's body? Is it stout or slender? What colors has it? How is it marked?


The moths of the Myron sphinx on Virginia Creeper.

Photo by M. V. Slingerland.

3. The wings of which pair are longer? Sketch or describe the form of the front and the hind wings. Are the outer edges scalloped, notched or even? What colors are on the front wing? On the hind one? Are these colors harmonious and beautiful? Make a sketch of the moth in water-color.

4. What is the shape of the antennæ? Describe the eyes. Can you see the coiled tongue? Uncoil it with a pin and note how long it is. Why does this moth need such a long tongue?


The white-lined sphinx moth.

5. From what flowers do the sphinx moths get nectar? How does the moth support itself when probing for nectar? Do you know any flowers which are dependent on the sphinx moths for carrying their pollen? How many kinds of sphinx moths do you know?

Hurt no living thing:

Ladybird, nor butterfly,

Nor moth with dusty wing,

Nor cricket chirping cheerily,

Nor grasshopper so light of leap,

Nor dancing gnat, nor beetle fat,

Nor harmless worms that creep.

—Christina Rossetti.

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