There are certain rules of life that seem to be set in stone. Pigs and Lobsters don’t fly, for instance, and butterflies fly during the day and moths fly at night. Every rule needs a caveat, however, and few are absolute. Pigs and lobsters can fly if they are aboard a jet. Lobsters fly all the time as they are transported cross country from lobster pot to cooking pot. I’m not sure if any live lobsters take this flight, but dead ones certainly do. I just heard that live pot-bellied pigs are allowed to fly aboard jet-liners if they accompany a human as an official “companion” or seeing-eye pig (in a pig’s eye, you say).
In the case of the day-time butterflies and night-time moths, this rule works almost all the time but is far from perfect. I’ve frequently seen butterflies flying after 6 pm and often well into twilight on warm evenings. None fly in the dark of night, so you could say this part is true. On the other hand, there are many moths that will fly during the day and some that fly only during the day. Probably the best known of the day flyers are the Clearwing moths. One of them, the Bumble-bee Clearwing Moth, actually looks something like a flying lobster.
I came upon one of those Bumble-bee Clearwings the other day – or, I should say that it came upon me. You never know when or where you will see one of these moths (actually not a set rule, because if you hang around the proper nectar plants long enough you will increase your chances dramatically). This creature was nectaring at a stand of pink-flowered Bergamots. I was watching a Silver-spotted Skipper imbibe (see here) on the same set of flowers when the Clearwing came buzzing into view.
These are frantic feeders and rarely stay around for long (note that I didn’t say “NEVER stay long” because that would be another one of those breakable “rules”). I felt lucky to have about 30 seconds of observation before this insect moved on. In action it appeared as a tiny hummingbird and in appearance like a large bumble bee, but their feeding style was pure hawkmoth.
Clearwings are members of the Sphinx Moth family – sleek jet-winged moths also known as Hawk Moths. As caterpillars, members of this family typically have a “horn” projecting off their posterior end (not ALL of them do) and raise up into a sphinx-like pose when alarmed (thus the name). As adults they nectar at long-tubed flowers and feed by un-coiling and inserting un-naturally long tongues into the flowers. They do so while in constant hovering flight and typically maintain position by extending the front pair of legs so that they are in contact with the petals. In moth-like fashion, most sphinxes do fly at night but the Clearwing clan performs their daily rounds under the full light of the mid-day sun.
My Clearwing carefully probed from flower to flower as it sought the freshly opened blooms on the Bergamot heads. Antennae held high and wings ablur, the creature flared out the “hairs” on the end of its abdomen to look like the tail of a miniature lobster. This was the only part of the creature upon which I could focus. The camera lens could not capture the motion of the wings which buzzed in the manner of a bee.
I did a little research after the fact to find out exactly how fast these wings were beating so that I could say something beyond “really fast.” I did come up around 85 beats per second. This is about the same as the Hummingbird but much slower than that of the Bumblebee (which apparently doesn’t really bumble if you consider that it buzzes at 130 plus beats per second). One account put the speed of sphinx moth wingtips at around 20 mph. That is “really fast.”
There are four species of Clearwings, so the exact identity of my subject was questionable. The dark legs, golden-brown color, and thorax stripe peg it as a Bumblebee Clearwing, but admittedly I would not have been able to make that call without having the stop-action pictures in front of me. There was little doubt that it was a Clearwing because it had clear wings with purplish scale on the wing margins.
Of course, it would be fitting to end this discussion by saying that even Clearwing moths don’t always have clear wings. It’s all about that solid rule thing. When they first emerge out of the pupae, their wings are fully covered with scales. The scales are loosely attached, however, and they quickly come off as the moth buzzes into action. The Bumblebee Clearwing, like all the Clearwings, burst into active life in a cloud of floating scales and their path of life becomes clear.