Hawk moths, also known as a hummingbird or sphinx moths, are widespread around the world and are quite active in the Sonoran desert.
This moth is one of the largest flying insects with a wingspan of two to five inches. The distinct white lines on the forewing and thick pink stripe on the hindwing make identification easy.
The species found in the Sonoran Desert, Hyles lineate, hovers in mid-air to feed on large nectar-producing flowers. The ability to hover in nectar feeders is rather rare and also found in humming birds, some bats and hover flies. Hawk moths also have the ability to move quickly from side to side while hovering, a strategy that is thought to be an adaptation to escape predators. They are also one of the fastest flying insects, with a top speed of twelve miles per hour!
These moths feed on specific plants and have a ten inch feeding tube that allows it to take advantage of deep throated flowers that other pollinators can’t reach, such as Sacred Datura, Evening Primrose, and many cacti species. The females will lay hundreds of eggs, again on specific ‘feeder’ plants. Upon hatching the larva immediately start eating voraciously.
The larva, or caterpillar, is typically yellow with white spots and diagonal slashes on the sides and features a dramatic horn on the rear end that looks dangerous but is for display only. When resting it is common for the caterpillar to rear its front end up and put its head down in a ‘praying’ posture which gives it the appearance of the Egyptian Sphinx, hence the nickname Sphinx moth. While many of the plants the caterpillar eats are poisonous to other animals, it is able to eliminate or metabolize the toxins. The caterpillar, when threatened, will even regurgitate a sticky green material which contains some of the toxins in an effort to discourage predators.
In late summer it is not uncommon to see large numbers of these caterpillars traveling along the ground, all going the same way, most likely looking for new grazing grounds, Native Americans would take advantage of this migration and collect large numbers of the larva, skewering and roasting them over a slow fire as a special treat. Those not eaten would be ground into a meal for later consumption.
Anyone up for a bar-b-q?