Italian Hawk Moths

Italian Moths that seem like Hummingbirds

I have been asked, time and time again, "What's that? Is it a hummingbird?" by the guests that come and stay at our holiday houses here in Tuscany. They were all referring to a curious creature that flits, with great speed, from flower to flower and hovers, effortlessly, while its long proboscis (feeding tube) reaches deep into the flowers of nectar-bearing plants...

hummingbird moth

The elusive creature is in actual fact was a member of the hawk moth family that begins feeding towards sunset and some species continue feeding for most of the night. Although the European hawk moth can be found throughout the continent, and there are many species, it is particularly common in Italy where it can often be seen refueling with aviation fuel (nectar) from common Med plants such as lavender or catmint (which it truly adores!)

hummingbird moths searching for nectar

I have spent many evenings (glass of red-wine in hand) admiring the flying skills and speed of this amazing insect as it zooms around my garden, visiting every suitable flower- with excruciating precision! However some species of this creature have obtained a more sinister image throughout history, as, on the thorax of the deaths-head hawk moth there is a tiny marking that appears to be a skull and crossbones...

skull and crossbones on hummingbird moths hummingbird moths from silence of the lambs

Because of its size (it is the largest European moth!), it's skull-and-crossbones markings and its ability to make quite an unexpected loud shrill, the Death's-head hawk moth has been an object of folklore, terror and persecution throughout history. Its sinister qualities have also given it it's Latin name (Acherontia atropos) Acheron is the metaphorical river of sorrow that flows deep down in the infernal regions; Atropos the eldest of the three fates, the one who severs the thread of life.

hummingbird moths matingIn France the appearance of this moth was seen as an omen of death and was thought to harbor war and pestilence- mainly due to it's appearance en masse in Brittany, during the suffering of the plague. The dust of it's wings was considered dangerous and it was believed that it was capable of blinding a man, if it came in contact with the eye! The hawk moth is also capable of emitting a high pitch shriek, thought to be used to ward off honey bees while it robs their honey from the hive. This shriek was thought to originate from a screaming, death-stricken child in Poland! hummingbird moth larvae

But by far is most noted entrance into modern 'folklore' was it's appearance in the film "Silence of the lambs" by Thomas Harris where a serial-killer left a pupa of the 'Deaths-head' hawk moth in the mouth of its victims.

However the much-loved European hawk moth's most sinister claim to fame is the fact that it steals a bit of honey from bee-hives every now and then. At least now when you see this strange creature you may avoid making the old, classic mistake by saying ...

"Gee! I had no idea that you had hummingbirds here in Italy!"

Hummingbird moth up close

By Jonathan Radford



Thursday, July 07TH, 2011 by Guest

It is amazing to watch one of these up close and yes, we thought it was a baby hummingbird until we took pictures and noticed the antenne. Took us a while to fiqure out what to look for in order to identify it. This was the first time in all of my 65 years that I have seen one.

Monday, July 11TH, 2011 by Guest

I saw one in Lyme Regis, actually on the coast. I'm so happy I know what it is now.

Monday, August 15TH, 2011 by Guest

I have the same moth in my garden, in Middleton, WI!

Thursday, August 25TH, 2011 by Guest

I have seen these several times this summer at our "Butterfly Bushes" we have.  They are mostly covered in large butterflies, but on occasion I have seen this and thought I was going crazy.  I saw this hummingbird body, and then the wings-- which are so strange.  While looking for photos of a certain moth I landed here, and well, I'll be damned!  Very interesting.  I'm in Central Northeast, PA.  

Wednesday, September 14TH, 2011 by Guest

I saw one of these in San Gimignano and after taking a few photos, realized it was an insect but could not figure out what type of insect it could be!  It moved so fast at first I thought it was a hummingbird, amazing wee creature

Monday, March 26TH, 2012 by Guest

On my front lawn the Hummingbird Moth was in East Texas this week and I shot this picture!

Monday, July 02TH, 2012 by Guest

awesome! I saw this yesterday in Shamokin Pennsylvania, I've never saw or even heard of this. It was beautiful.

Friday, July 13TH, 2012 by Guest

I seen one in Elkhorn, Wisconsin on 7/13/12. I tryed to get my camera but didn't want to lose out on the sight of it. This is the 2nd time one was seen in my yard. the first time was about 5 years ago. And my husband first thought it was a bumble bee flying around him. Right after he seeh it and told me I read about them in Birds and Blooms. We have always watched for them since. I

Saturday, July 14TH, 2012 by Guest

At first I did think if was a hummingbird but the antennae gave it away as something else.
This one has been hanging out at my Bee Balm for days now giving me many opportunities to snatch photos of it.
I am in Columbia, Maryland.

does anyone know the migratory habits of this moth? 


Sunday, July 22TH, 2012 by Guest