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It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a Moth: The Sphinx Moths of Ohio

Agriculture and Natural Resources
Iliana Moore, Research Senior Technician; Department of Entomology; College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences; The Ohio State University
Dr. Jamie Strange, Chair; Department of Entomology; College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences; The Ohio State University

If you spend a lot of time around flowers, you may have noticed large, hovering pollinators that look and sound like hummingbirds, but on closer inspection are not birds at all; they are insects. These are the large moths known as sphinx moths, hawk moths, or hummingbird moths. Though not as recognized or beloved as their more common butterfly cousins, these moths are important pollinators for many wildflowers and garden plants in the Midwest and across the globe.Close-up photos of six species of sphinx moths.

Sphinx moths make up the family Sphingidae, which contains over 1,400 species worldwide, including 115 in North America (Tuttle, 2007). They are relatively large moths with stout abdomens, front wings much larger than the back wings, and extremely long tongues (also known as proboscises). They vary widely in color, markings, and wing shape and are often vibrant and visually striking. Their fast-buzzing wings and hovering behavior while feeding often give them the appearance of hummingbirds. Though the diurnal (daytime-active) species are more recognized, most species are nocturnal or crepuscular, flying in darkness and feeding on night-blooming flowers (Tartaglia & Handel, 2014). Their caterpillars are often called hornworms because most possess horn-like spikes on their back ends to intimidate and defend against predators. Some hornworms are infamous as garden pests, particularly tobacco and tomato hornworms, which are common enemies of vegetable gardeners.

Despite the ill repute of hornworms in gardens, their adult moth forms often provide important pollination services for these same gardens. Sphinx moths are less efficient pollen-movers than bees because they do not purposefully gather pollen (which many bees do) and do not land on flowers while drinking nectar. Nonetheless, they pollinate a large variety of flowers by picking up and carrying pollen on their long proboscises. They prefer to visit large tube- and horn-shaped blooms, such as morning glories, columbines, and petunias (Tartaglia & Handel, 2014), which are often too deep and narrow for other pollinators or are unattractive to other pollinators due to traits such as lack of odor. Furthermore, because most sphinx moths are active at night, they can feed from and pollinate flowers that are not visited by day-active bees and butterflies. In these ways, sphinx moths fill an important ecosystem role not filled by other pollinators.Close-up photos of four caterpillars—two green and two dark brown.

Below are five of the most common sphinx moth species in Ohio, which you may have seen in moth or caterpillar form in your local gardens, parks, or nature reserves.

Snowberry Clearwing (Hemaris diffinis)

The snowberry clearwing is one of the few diurnal Sphingidae species. Its yellow and black body patterns and clear wings give it its name. Its coloration and clear wings also mimic those of a bumble bee, though it is hummingbird-like in flight and in its feeding behavior. This mimicry of a stinging insect helps to protect the snowberry clearwing moth from predators. Its geographical range covers the entire mainland United States, as well as parts of Mexico and Canada (Opler, 2000). In the eastern United States, it pollinates many wildflowers and common garden plants, such as honeysuckle, lilacs, bee balm, phlox, American aloe, milkweeds, thistles, Canada violets, dogbane, and even some fruit trees like cherries and plums (Grant, 1985). This species is active from May to June in the Midwest, though it can also be found in July and August.

Snowberry clearwing caterpillars are light yellow-green with a green head, black horn, and black spots along their sides. Their spots are actually holes called spiracles, which caterpillars use to breathe. They are sometimes dark brown with dark spots and a black horn. They feed on native honeysuckle, dogbane, hawthorn, viburnum, and cherry and plum trees (Cranshaw, 2014). Despite their appetite for cherry and plum trees, this species is not a significant fruit tree pest because other host plants are more abundant in the wild.Close-ups of yellow and black moth flying in front of purple flowers and resting on a leaf. Two close-ups of caterpillars, one green and one yellowish tan.

Hummingbird Clearwing (Hemaris thysbe)

The hummingbird clearwing is another diurnal species. It looks very similar to the snowberry clearwing in terms of body shape and size. However, its coloration is different, with rich reds and olive-greens that make it appear even more hummingbird-like than other sphinx moths. It is common throughout the eastern half of the United States but is rare in the Northeast. It pollinates the same types of flowers as the snowberry clearwing (Grant, 1985; Fleming, 2017), although its peak active season in the Midwest is slightly later, running primarily from June to August.

Hummingbird clearwing caterpillars look similar to snowberry clearwing caterpillars but are distinguished by a bluish-red horn rather than a black one, and a thin white line running horizontally along their bodies. Hummingbird and snowberry clearwing caterpillars feed on similar host plants, but hummingbird clearwings prefer viburnum plants.

Tobacco Hawk Moth (Manduca sexta)

Side-view close-up of moth with brownish-red tail and light-tan head flying next to pink flowers; overhead view of same moth flying near purple-pink flower; and side-view close-up of green caterpillar with brown spots along the length of its body.The tobacco hawk moth, or Carolina sphinx moth, is better known by the name of its caterpillar, the tobacco hornworm. It is often confused with the tomato hornworm (caterpillar of the five-spotted hawk moth—described below) because they look similar and their caterpillars eat the same host plants.

The tobacco hawk moth is a nocturnal pollinator that feeds from crepuscular and night-blooming flowers like wild tobacco, Japanese honeysuckle, moonflowers, and petunias (Grant, 1985; Fleming, 2017). Its wings, head, and thorax are mottled gray, but its abdomen features six pairs of bright orange spots, though the spots farthest from the head may be small and difficult to see (Villanueva, 2013). Its range extends across the continental United States, but it is more common in the South than the North. It is primarily active from July to September but can be found as late as November in the Midwest.

Tobacco hornworm caterpillars, on the other hand, are active during the day and feed on plants of the nightshade family—namely tomatoes, tobacco, peppers, potatoes, and eggplants (Villanueva, 2013). They can be voracious and destructive pests in gardens due to their large size, abundance, and effective camouflage from both wild predators and humans. In appearance, these caterpillars are large and green, with seven diagonal, half-white half-black stripes along their sides, black-and-white spiracles, and a red horn (Cranshaw, 2014).Three photos, one showing large brown moth with orange spots resting on a person’s hand, and two photos beneath it showing green caterpillars crawling on plant stems.

Five-Spotted Hawk Moth (Manduca quinquemaculata)

Like the tobacco hawk moth, the five-spotted hawk moth is nocturnal and feeds on night-blooming or crepuscular flowers. Along with moonflowers, tobacco, petunias, and honeysuckle, it also pollinates some species of phlox, bouncing bet, and sundrops that bloom very early or late in the day (Grant, 1985; Fleming, 2017). The five-spotted hawk moth looks similar to the tobacco hawk moth but is distinguished by five pairs of orange spots along its abdomen, compared to six pairs on the tobacco hawk moth (Villanueva, 2013). As on the tobacco hawk moth, the pair of spots farthest from the head can be small and difficult to see.

The five-spotted hawk moth is widespread throughout the United States but is more abundant in the North than the South (Villanueva, 2013). Furthermore, its active season is earlier than the tobacco hawk moth, starting in late June and extending to early September. In the Midwest, it is most abundant in early to midsummer. Its abundance begins to decline in late July to early August, after which the tobacco hawk moth is more abundant for the remainder of the year.

Like the tobacco hawk moth, the five-spotted hawk moth is most familiar in its larval form: the tomato hornworm. These caterpillars feed on the same nightshade plants as tobacco hornworms and are just as gluttonous (Villanueva, 2013). Their color and size match the tobacco hornworm, and they also have seven stripes along each side. Their stripes differ from those of the tobacco hornworm because they are completely white and are shaped like sideways Vs (Cranshaw, 2014). Furthermore, tomato hornworm horns are black rather than red. Tomato hornworms can also be dark brown, though green is much more common.Three photos, one showing an overhead close-up of a moth with its gray wings spread and orange-yellow spots on its body. Below this photo are two photos showing side views of caterpillars crawling on plants stems—one green with white markings and one dark brown with yellow markings.

White-Lined Sphinx (Hyles lineata)

The white-lined sphinx moth is common and widespread throughout North America, as well as parts of Central America (Opler, 2000). With its mostly brown coloration, it is less vibrant than many other diurnal sphinx moth species. However, it is recognizable by the thick, pale, diagonal lines running across each of its front wings, the vertical white stripes on its thorax, and the pink bands on its back wings, which can be seen during flight.

Though primarily nocturnal, this moth is sometimes active in the daytime, flying and feeding on diurnal flowers. In the eastern United States, it pollinates evening primrose, honeysuckle, lilacs, red clover, bouncing bet, moonflower, and American aloe. In the Southwest it visits columbine and phlox (Grant, 1985). Its active season in the Midwest runs from June to August.

Caterpillars of the white-lined sphinx have multiple color morphs, making them challenging to identify. They are usually light green with a horizontal yellow or yellow-and-black stripe across each side of their body and also have a series of orange or yellow spots parallel to the stripe. However, in addition to the orange spots on each side of their body, some morphs are mostly black with a little green on the underside of their body. Their horn color can vary between yellow, orange, or black in different morphs. The caterpillars have a very broad host plant range that includes many species of wild grape, purslane, primrose, apple, peony, and spurge (Cranshaw, 2014).Five photos, with two showing an overhead and a side view of a moth with brown and yellow-striped wings, and a fuzzy brown body with black and white spots; and three close-ups of caterpillars, two that are green with browns spots and one that is black with tiny yellow spots.

Appendix 1: List of All Ohio Sphingidae Species and Associated Plants

Image showing a list of all Ohio sphinx moths and the plants they feed on and pollinate.


Cranshaw, W. (2014.) Hornworms and “hummingbird” moths [Fact Sheet No. 5.517]. Colorado State University Extension.

Fleming, R. C. (2017). Food plants of some adult sphinx moths (Lepidoptera: Sphingidae). The Great Lakes Entomologist, 3(1), 17–23.

Grant, V. (1985). Additional observations on temperate North American hawkmoth flowers. Botanical Gazette, 146(4), 517–520.

Opler, P. A. (2000). Lepidoptera of North America: 1. Distribution of silkmoths (Saturniidae) and hawkmoths (Sphingidae) of Eastern North America. Colorado State University.

Tartaglia, E. S., & Handel S. N. (2014). Nectar plant preferences of Hemaris (Sphingidae) on co-occurring native Cirsium and non-native Centaurea (Asteraceae) inflorescences. Journal of Pollination Ecology, 13(19), 184–187.

Tuttle, J. P. (2007). The hawk moths of North America: a natural history study of the sphingidae of the United States and Canada (1st ed.). Wedge Entomological Research Foundation.

Villanueva, R. (2013). Tobacco hornworm, Manduca sexta (Linnaeus), and tomato hornworm, Manduca quinquemaculata (Haworth), (insecta: lepidoptera: sphingidae) [Fact sheet]. University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension.

Originally posted Dec 18, 2023.