Article by Alan Wynn, conservation partnerships officer, Sunshine Coast Council
Over the last few weeks I have received quite a few photographs of a very intriguing day-flying moth. Most people's first reaction when they encounter one of these is “What was that? I didn’t think we had hummingbirds in Australia”.
Hummingbird hawk moth
Hummingbird hawk moths belong to the sphingidae (sfin-GID-ee) family, which are characterised by being able to fly very fast, hover and having a long tongue. In fact, the genus name for the hummingbird hawk moth, Macroglossum, means ‘long-tongued’.
Some species of hawk moth are specialist pollinators. The star orchids (Angraecum spp.) from Madagascar have a nectar spur of over 30cm in length. Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace predicted the existence of hawk moths with proboscis long enough to pollinate this orchid. After Darwin’s death, hawk moths with tongues long enough to sip the nectar produced by the star orchids were discovered on the island of Madagascar.
Their larvae have the upturned tail typical of all the hawk moth caterpillars and grow to 6cm in length. The early instars are mostly green in colour but the last (5th) instar may be green, brown or black (see image below). When ready to pupate the larvae crawl down to the ground and form a cocoon in the leaf litter several metres away from the host plant.
Host plants for the larvae seem to mostly come from the Rubiaceae family, locally that would include common rainforest plants like:
- Atractocarpus chartaceus – narrow-leaved gardenia
- Cyclophyllum coprosmoides – coast canthium
- Gynocthodes jasminoides – sweet morinda
- Hodgkinsonia ovatiflora – hodgkinsonia
- Psychotria daphnoides – smooth psychotria
- Pavetta australiensis - pavetta
- Psychotria loniceroides – hairy psychotria.
All these plants are perfect for the home garden in a sheltered shady spot. I have a smooth psychotria in my garden which has been practically defoliated by over 40 Macroglossum errans larvae.
For more info on Australian moths, butterflies and their caterpillars check out this excellent website.