Float like hummingbird, wings like moth: Late-season sighting of unique bug in Calgary 'exceptional'

Often mistaken for a hummingbird, one expert says the clearwing sphinx moth is common in Alberta — but rarely seen this late in the summer.

Calgary's cold spring may have pushed back the creatures' reproductive cycle this year, says John Swann

A close-up look at the hummingbird hawk moth. (Alex Novlesky)

It's understandable that some people would mistake this creature for a hummingbird, at least at first glance. 

But it's not a bird at all; it's a bug — the clearwing sphinx moth, hawk moth or hummingbird sphinx moth, to be exact.

We posted a video of one spotted on Tuesday night in Calgary's northwest neighbourhood of Charleswood, and received a wealth of responses from people who correctly identified it, and then proceeded to share photos and videos of their own sightings.

  • Scroll to the bottom of this story to see those submissions

While there are two commonly found species in Alberta, the hemaris thysbe and hemaris diffinus, it's rare to see either type this late in the summer, said John Swann, manager of the invertebrate collections at the University of Calgary. 

"To see it mid- to late-July? That's exceptional," said Swann, who suspects Calgary's cold spring may have pushed back the creatures' reproductive cycle.

Swann said the insects are most commonly spotted from mid-May to mid-June, and he found no records of the insects in July among the 50 or so hawk moth specimens in the U of C collection.

The clearwing sphinx moth is the only type of sphinx moth that flies during the day, said Swann. It gets its name from the fact that its wings are translucent, except for an outline of scales around the margins.

The fully mature clearwing has almost no scales on its wings, except around the margins — hence its name. (Associated Press)

When the insect first emerges from its cocoon, its wings are fully scaled. Gradually, the scales drop off, Swann explained.

A party horn for a mouth

The insect has no relation to the hummingbird, but mimics one in its appearance, particularly in the way it flits and feeds.

But the clearwing sphinx moth has an expandable mouth part, or proboscis, where a hummingbird has a needlelike beak.

Think of it like a party horn, said Swann. 

"You know those things that all the little kids blow out and annoy each other at birthday parties? That is what a butterfly or a moth's proboscis is like. It uncoils, licks up that nectar, sucks it all up and then coils back up," he said.

Other sightings

Tania Katay shared this video of what appears to be a hummingbird hawk moth feeding on nectar, which she captured in summer 2017.

Alex Novlesky spotted this "huge" one last year in Cranston, he said.

Brian Van Leeuwen said he saw a similar hawk moth, and on the same night as our original sighting.

Hawk moths are able to hover while they feed on nectar in a similar way to hummingbirds. (Brian Van Leeuwen)

And here's one more look for good measure.