An exotic visitor appeared in our garden on a recent afternoon, flying around the wall of the house, apparently inspecting the Virginia creeper, hovering expertly despite the strong breeze at its back, before zooming up and over the house on wings beating so rapidly as to be virtually invisible. It was a hummingbird hawkmoth, a species I had seen before in France and Spain but never in this country.
Much smaller than most of the other hawkmoths it does bear an uncanny resemblance to a hummingbird with its ability to hover on wings which produce an audible hum due to beating at an incredible 80 beats per second while its darting movement from one flower to the next and its long, down-curved proboscis completes the hummingbird illusion.
The last I had seen was in the garden of a Corsican cottage last summer when one perched on the wall only to have vanished by the time I had reemerged from the house with my camera. I have never managed a photograph so I am indebted to a friend, Ken Hartshorn, who took the accompanying picture in his flower-filled Norfolk garden where hummingbird hawkmoths occur more frequently than in these northern climes.
Unusually for moths they are active by day, usually in sunshine but sometimes in overcast conditions and even in rain while they occasionally come to moth traps overnight. They are strongly attracted to flowers with a plentiful supply of nectar such as honeysuckle and buddleia and studies have revealed that they are creatures of habit, returning to the same flowers at the same time every day.
They are migrants from southern Europe and North Africa with numbers varying greatly between years, with most occurring between June and September and smaller numbers during the rest of the year. They are becoming increasingly common in the UK, probably as a result of climate change with the record number recorded being over 6000 in 2006. The British Trust for Ornithology reports that many more than normal have been recorded this summer by Garden Birdwatchers so it is worth keeping an eye out for them.
There are superstitions attached to several species of hawkmoth, especially on the continent where they are more common but, while the death’s head hawkmoth is said to presage a death in the family if found in a house, the hummingbird hawkmoth is considered to bring good tidings.