Hawk Moths As Pollinators

By Laura Miller | September 5, 2021
Image by Tony Fuse
by Laura Miller
September 5, 2021

I have a love-hate relationship with the hawk moth. Also called Sphinx moths, this interesting family of pollinators is vital for the survival of many native plant species. These moths have long proboscis and the ability to roam as far as eighteen miles. These ugly duckling cousins of the butterfly actually perform special duties which other pollinators can’t.

Moths as Pollinators

As gardeners, we often think of bees, butterflies and even hummingbirds as the primary pollinators in our gardens. We see their brightly-colored bodies flitting from flower to flower as they transfer the pollen necessary for seed production. We also plant flowers to attract these lovely pollinators and use organic methods of pest control to protect them from harm.

Yet, few of us do anything to promote moth pollination. Is this because moth pollination occurs primarily at night and we don’t witness it? Is it because we find the dull brown and gray coloration of moths to be less appealing than that of daytime pollinators? Is it because we don’t understand the environmental impact of moths as pollinators? 

Or do you feel like I do, and absolutely despise tomato hornworms? When I’m picking tomatoes, these enormous caterpillars seemingly appear out of nowhere to startle and terrify me. I’d like to say that I could happily live the rest of life without ever seeing another tomato hornworm, but the simple fact is that even these disgusting garden pests have a purpose.

Moonflower Pollination

What possible role could hornworms play in our gardens? Well, guess what pollinates a moonflower? Yep, the Five-Lined Hawk Moth is the adult version of what we typically call the tomato hornworm and is one species of Sphinx moth responsible for moonflower pollination. 

Not only is the adult moth attracted to the moonflower’s trumpet-shaped flowers, but as a  member of the tomato family, moonflowers can also play host to tomato hornworm caterpillars. 

In fact, pollination of many night-blooming flowers is carried out by Hawk moths. As pollinators, sphinx moths are especially attracted to the white or pale color and strong fragrance of flowers which bloom at night. In addition to moonflower pollination, Hawk moths also visit other garden favorites like evening primrose and four-o-clocks. 

Thus, protecting and promoting Hawk moth pollination is essential for night-blooming garden flowers. But moths, as pollinators, play an even bigger role in the conservation of native flowers. Many of our native species of flowers have distinctive flower shapes which can only be pollinated by specific species of the Sphinx moth. 

Due to loss of habitat, many of these native plant species are already rare and endangered. Without moth pollination, these beautiful and unique flora specimens would fall prey to extinction. Additionally, the ability of moths to travel long distances helps promote cross-pollination between isolated populations of plant species. 

Bottom line, we may not find them attractive or even appreciate their juvenile stages, but Hawk moths play a surprisingly vital role in our flower gardens and in the plant world. 

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