Year of the Sphingidae – Model Organisms

We’ve discussed the role of Sphingidae as pollinators and their importance to science as model for MAVs. Today we’ll learn about a specific hawkmoth called Manduca sexta.

Manduca sexta, the tobacco hornworm is one of the most recognizable hawkmoths around. The adults are large and have colorfully striped bodies. The caterpillars feed on solanaceous plants like tobacco and tomatoes so they are often found in backyard gardens. Although the caterpillars can be pests, the adults act as pollinators.

manduca stages

M. sexta adult, larva and pupa   Photo (c) Richard Vogt

 M. sexta also plays a role in laboratory settings. The caterpillars are used as model organisms. Model organisms are species that are studied in order to understand biology. Discoveries made in model organisms can provide insight into the biology of other organisms, mostly humans.

M. sexta  is a good model organism because the caterpillars are large, have a quick life cycle and are easy to rear in the lab. They have been used in studies of neurobiology, physiology flight mechanics, nicotine resistance, and embryological development.

If you’d like something specific featured on the blog, or would like to submit a blog post for us feel free to reach out to the NMW team. As always you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter!

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“Nachfalter op. 157” Johann Strauss’ Music to Moth By


Johann Strauss

Before there was National Moth Week, there was the great 19th-century German composer Johann Strauss, who imagined the dancing and darting flight of the “night butterfly” in his playful waltz, “Nachtfalter (moth) op.157.”
According to Wikipedia, Strauss wrote the waltz in 1854 and it was first performed at a parish festival ball near Vienna in August of that year.
The work suggests the “whirring of the wings of a moth … and then its circling flight.” Most likely, political and other circumstances, including the end of “a devastating cholera outbreak,” may have prevented his imaginative work from reaching larger audiences. However, the composer Franz Liszt discovered the work’s charms and played it as a piano duet with his daughter. Further performances “confirmed the work as one of Strauss’ earlier inspired creations.”
Listen to this recording closely and imagine the flight of a moth as it circles and begins to land on your sheet during your moth night.

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National Moth Week at the Smithsonian!


We are very excited to announce The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History will be hosting a National Moth Week event free to the public. Please see below, and the official event link here for information regarding the event.

Who: The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

When: Saturday July 18, 2015, 11AM—4PM.

Where: Natural History Museum, Ground Floor, Q?rius (pronounced “curious”)

What: National Moth Week: Scales in the sky

Official Event Description:

Moths, butterflies, and skippers make up about 157,000 species of  insects and about 1.6 percent of the total number of animal species on Earth. Yet they remain one of the most popular and widely known animals among all ages of peoples anywhere. This presentation will use images, live illustrations by an artist, and projections from real specimens to show just what these fascinating insects are about.  Fantastic forms and  life-histories are presented to show the diversity of adaptations of this scaly-winged group of animals.


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Sam Johnson’s Moth Song, Again, Again and Again

What better way to learn about moths than in a song?
I posted this last year,and the year before, but I thought it was worth a re-post. It always makes me smile!

If you know of any other MOTH MUSIC, please let us know.


Saturniids are huge they’re as big as your hat,

Elastichiids are tiny as an anorexic gnat

– and micropterigiids are smaller than that.

What are we talking about? MOTHS!


Moths of the Limberlost all look like bark

Nocturnal predators eat them – but hark!

With tympana they can hear bats in the dark.

What are we talking about? MOTHS!


Moths come to light and nobody knows why

Sometimes they sit on the wall till they die.

The rules of logic don’t seem to apply to…

What are we talking about? MOTHS!


Some people hate moths and they get in a froth

when Tineiids make a meal of their fine woolen cloth.

Some Pyralids eat fungus from the back of a sloth.

What are we talking about? MOTHS!


Some moths live in beehives in dead hollow trees.

Some moths eat liverworts in cold mountain streams

and some caterpillars can repeatedly freeze

What are we talking about? MOTHS!


Tortricids mine needles; megathymids bore roots;

Arctiids eat lichens; Lycaenids bore fruit.

Collecting them all is an endless pursuit.

What are we talking about? MOTHS!


Lets talk transformation – what could be more appalling

than seeing a worm who is tired of crawling,

sprout wings and get airborne and discover his calling?

What are we talking about? MOTHS!


So if you have faith you will see what this shows.

You may buy the farm but I strongly suppose

that your miserable pupa might metamorphose.

What are we talking about? MOTHS!

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Highlights of National Moth Week Events in Japan

Guest post by  Utsugi JINBO

During the National Moth Week 2015, an insect book exhibition will be held at a store of Junku-dou, a large chain bookstore, at Ikebukuro city in Tokyo. This is an exhibition sale of insect books as well as artworks selected by organizers of this event. There is a moth book section with an introduction of the National Moth Week.

At the same time, two events on NMW will be held. One is the “Japanese National Moth Week 2015 Kickoff Event” meeting at Mt Takao-san in the suburb of Tokyo (18 July), with a talk on moths and a moth tour. The other is a moth night tour at Oomurasaki Center, in Yamanashi Prefecture (19 July). Oomurasaki Center is a visitor center with exhibitions on butterflies and a butterfly farm of Great purple emperor butterflies, where the first NMW event in Japan was held last year.

japan_flier_2015Utsugi JINBO is NMW Japan coordinator.  He is a Researcher at the Department of Zoology, National Museum of Nature and Science, Ibaraki, JAPAN

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Year of the Sphingidae- MAVs

I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts that Sphingidae are well known for their very fast, very agile flight as well as their ability to hover. Those are great for avoiding predators and zipping from flower to flower to get nectar. It’s also very interesting to us professional and amateur entomologists who love to observe hawkmoths feeding on plants.

Hovering Manduca  Photo (c) A. Hinterwirth, via LiveScience

Hovering Manduca
Photo (c) Armin Hinterwirth, via LiveScience

But did you know that their flight dynamics are of interest to engineers and scientists working in the field of aeronautics? These researchers study the flight characteristics as well as the wing structure of hawkmoths (and several other insects such as bees, flies, and dragonflies) to develop tiny devices called micro-aerial vehicles (MAVs). The design MAVs often combines the expertise of teams of evolutionary biologists, entomologists, engineers and computer scientists. When insects are the inspiration for MAVs they are sometimes called “entomopters” (which is definitely my favorite new word).


MAV by Harvard SEAS Laboratory

MAV by Harvard Microbiotics Lab  Photo (c) B. Finio

MAV by Harvard Microbiotics Lab
Photo (c) B. Finio

MAV by NovaPhotonics

MAV by NovaPhotonics

MAVS can be used to remotely observe areas that may be hazardous for humans to enter, such as in search and rescue missions, environmental monitoring, aerial photography and surveillance.

The use of hawkmoth wings as models for MAVs is an example of biomimicry – which is the imitation of natural systems, elements or organisms to solve complex human problems.

Examples of biomimicry can be found across diverse fields as surfaces that imitate shark skin, nanotubes that inspired by viral structure, adhesives based on sticky gecko feet, display technology that mimics the structural color of morpho butterfly wings, spider silk as the inspiration for bullet-proof fabrics and on and on and on.

If you’d like something specific featured on the blog, or would like to submit a blog post for us feel free to reach out to the NMW team. As always you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter!

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The Year of the Sphingidae – Pollination

Sphingidae (and several other moth taxa) play a critical role in many ecosystems – that of pollinators. Pollination is a mutualism – an ecological relationship where both partners get a benefit. The pollinator gets food in the form of nectar (and sometimes pollen) from the flower, while the plant gets pollinated – that is, it is fertilized and can go on to produce seeds that will grow into the next generation of plants.

Hyles lineata drinking nectar  Photo (c) M. Smith

Hyles lineata drinking nectar
Photo (c) M. Smith

Since moths lack jaws and possess a proboscis as a mouthpart, they don’t eat any of the pollen that collects on their bodies when they visit flowers. They use their proboscis to collect nectar only  – this is in contrast to bees and beetles that directly consume pollen as well as use it to provision their nests. Hawkmoth probosces can be very long – in some cases several times the length of the moth’s body. Later I’ll do a post on a famous example of this.

Manduca sexta showing long proboscis Photo via

Manduca sexta showing long proboscis extended
Photo via

Sphingidae keep the proboscis rolled up when not in use

Sphingidae keep the proboscis rolled up when not in use 

Hawkmoths can’t visit just any flower to drink nectar. Since the majority of hawkmoths are nocturnal, they are restricted to visiting flowers that are open and producing nectar at night. Most people are aware that some species of flower close at night, but did you know that flowers can produce varying amounts of nectar depending on the time of day?

Flowers visited by hawkmoths also tend to be white (or very pale yellow or pink), colors that are easily visible to moths flying in the dark. Hawkmoth-pollinated flowers also tend to be heavily-scented, as these insects have evolved excellent olfactory systems to locate flowers at night – they can detect scents from flowers up to a few kilometers away!

Because of their long probosces, hawkmoths have trouble accessing nectar in flat, open flowers (for example a purple cone flower or similar). They generally to visit flowers with a long, tube-like shape.

A Manduca hovers while drinking nectar from a Datura flower (note the white color and tubular shape of the flower) Photo (c) K. Riffel

A Manduca hovers while drinking nectar from a Datura flower (note the white color and tubular shape of the flower)
Photo (c) K. Riffel

Hawkmoths are attracted to flowers that produce large amounts of nectar. As I mentioned in a previous post, hawkmoths are capable of hovering flight, which requires a lot of energy. That energy is provided by the sugars in flower nectar.

Now, from the moth’s perspective, it’s getting a reward in the form of nectar from a flower. But what is the flower gaining by employing a moth as a pollinator rather than using a bee, a hummingbird, a beetle, etc? As I mentioned earlier, hawkmoths can be long distance fliers, often traveling several kilometers in one night in search of nectar. This means that pollen is carried further away from the plant in which it originated, potentially leading to increased genetic diversity for the plants. Additionally, since moths don’t eat or groom away any of the pollen that collects on their bodies when they visit a flower, any pollen on them has the potential to be deposited on the next flower, rather than being lost.

Another reason why plants might employ a nocturnal moth pollinator is because there are fewer flowers and fewer pollinators available at night, since the majority of flowers are open and pollinators are pollinating in the day time. This means that flowers can potentially reduce the chances of receiving pollen from the wrong species of plant (which won’t lead to the production of seeds).

Moths don’t pollinate any of our food crops, however, they do pollinate many native and garden plants. Take a look in your garden or a nearby garden to see if you can spot any potentially moth-pollinated plants!

If you’d like something specific featured on the blog, or would like to submit a blog post for us feel free to reach out to the NMW team. As always you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter!

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Submit moth observations to Encyclopedia Of Life

EOL logo

Encyclopedia of Life is a website dedicated to providing global access to knowledge about life on earth. EOL is a collaborative effort among scientists, citizen scientists and the general public to share millions of pages of information  and multimedia about species, including moths! NMW participants can share photos of moths from their events with EOL’s Flickr Group or through one of the NMW partners that are already contributors to EOL (iNaturalist and the Moth  Photographers Group).

EOL has a new database called TraitBank which contains natural history trait data. EOL’s TraitBank is a searchable, comprehensive, open digital repository for organism traits, measurements, interactions and other facts for all taxa across the tree of life. Using the data search tool you can find and download all data TraitBank holds for each attribute of interest. You can search and filter by specific values and by taxon, and can sort the results. and

EOL has also created a fun Moth Memory Game. Check it out!

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The Year of the Hawkmoth

As you’re probably aware if you are following NMW news, we’ve designated 2015 as the year of the Hawkmoth, so over the next few weeks we’ll feature some blog posts on them.


There are about 1400 species of Sphingidae, which can be found all over the world. Hawkmoth is one common name for moths in the family Sphingidae. The other common names for sphingids are Sphinx moths and hornworms.

First we’ll find out how they got their common names.

“Sphinx moth” likely comes from the way the caterpillars tend to sit when at rest:

Sphingidae caterpillar (photo (c) UNL entomology)

Sphingidae caterpillar (photo (c) UNL entomology)

Ancient Sphingidae? (Photo via Wikimedia commons)

Ancient Egyptian Sphingidae?
(Photo via Wikimedia commons)

The name “hawkmoth” is generally thought to have been given to the Sphingidae due to their extremely fast flight speeds. They have narrow wings and streamlined bodies to aid in this fast flight. There is some debate over exactly what speed hawkmoths top out at, but it may be as fast as 35-40 mph! Sphingidae can also hover, and are capable of fast turns and mid-air acrobatics (thought to be predator-evasion tactics).

Ambylyx pryeri with narrow wings and streamlined bodies (photo via Wikimedia commons)

Ambylyx pryeri with narrow wings and streamlined body (photo via Wikimedia commons)

Finally, it’s easy to see how Sphingidae earned the nickname “hornworm”. In many species the caterpillars possess a spike on the posterior end of the abdomen. It isn’t clear what the function of the horn is but it may serve as a predator deterrent. One thing is for sure, though is that that the horn is NOT a stinger.

Hyles gallii caterpillar (photo via Wikimedia commons)

Hyles gallii caterpillar (photo via Wikimedia commons)

If you’d like something specific featured on the blog, or would like to submit a blog post for us feel free to reach out to the NMW team. As always you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter!

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NMW new partner – Moths of Belize

Introducing a new website – Moths of Belize by Ian Morton

“a photographic record and field guide to the moths of Southern Belize”.

moth of belize

Well, if you are interested in wildlife then this could be paradise! We live just a mile and half from the sleepy town of Punta Gorda in the jungle of Southern Belize, and have an ongoing fascination with the flora and fauna that surrounds us — including toucans, Howler Monkeys, tapir, and a huge variety of insects.

We have had a bug board for many years, attracting insects and their predators for us and our guests to observe and photograph. In 2013, having chanced across the National Moth Week website, we decided to invite friends for a ‘moth evening’ and catalogue the moths we saw. Although we recorded very few moths (about 40 species) it was a sufficiently interesting and fun evening to convince us to hold a week-long series of events for NMW 2014.

What a contrast! We were blown away that we recorded 521 species of moths in the eight nights of National Moth Week 2014, but also shocked and frustrated that we were unable to identify many of those species.

We have continued to photograph the moths coming to our bug board every night, and the collection of images and species has now grown to such an extent that we needed a platform to display them. We wanted to make the picture record easily accessible to anyone who was interested but, more importantly, to continue to identify different species through our own efforts and, significantly, the generosity of others helping with IDs and corrections.

So, introducing

In creating our photographic record of the moths at Hickatee, we have tried to place each moth in the correct Family and subfamily. The Plate index also provides an image typical of that subfamily, as an aid to identifying unknown species.

In general, the style of individual images and for the website follows the Moth Photographers Group website, so as to try and maintain consistency and to aid comparisons of individual images.

We have followed the typical division of families into “macro” and “micro” Lepidoptera.

moth of belize2

Identification of these moths has been our biggest problem as we have been unable to find more than a few resources about tropical Central American moths.

Matthew Barnes’ site and the Moth Photographers Group site have been invaluable. But, still, the placement of individual species within a subfamily is, in many cases, little more than a guess with the only benefit of the placement being that similar moths with similar markings, shape and posture are grouped together.

If you see any image that is in the wrong place, if you can identify a moth or its family then please let me know by email at or message on the website.

moth of belize3

We currently have images of nearly 2,000 species of moths and usually add at least one new species per day to our records. Whilst most of the macro moth pictures are now uploaded to the website, the micro moth images will be something of a ‘work in progress’ over the next couple of months.

With the increased interest in moths in Southern Belize we are expecting a very exciting and productive National Moth Week 2015. If you have not already organized your own event, I would urge you to DO IT NOW– it really is worth the effort. But, do be careful – you may find yourself becoming hooked!

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