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Northland Nature: The visitor to the phlox

As we move through September, I look out on the late-season wildflowers of goldenrods, asters and sunflowers that continue to hold their blossoms now as the days get shorter.

White-lined sphinx moth
A white-lined sphinx moth (hummingbird moth) takes nectar from a phlox. Note the many white lines and the large pink patch on the wings. (Larry Weber photo)

As we move through September, I look out on the late-season wildflowers of goldenrods, asters and sunflowers that continue to hold their blossoms now as the days get shorter.

These flowers represent the last of a long list of wild ones that bloomed from the cool days of May until now. Never in all that time were we without floral colors in the woods and roadsides.

Now these flowers of September will last until the chill and frost bring down their colorful blooms.

The same can be said for the flowers of the yards and gardens.

Here we have also watched the progression from the spring crocuses and daffodils to bleeding hearts, lily of the valley, azaleas and peonies of summer. Daylilies proliferated in the mid- to late summer and with their demise, behind schedule this year, they were replaced by large purple phlox (Sweet Williams) and yellow golden glows.

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A scattering of wild goldenrods, asters and evening primroses added to the show.

Not only have we observed the display, but their various colors and odors were noticed by myriads of insects that stopped by for a nectar snack, staying long enough to pollinate the plants.

Among those attending were bumblebees, wasps, flies, moths and butterflies (especially the checkered fritillaries).

As usually happens in nature, the opportunists came as well. Predatory dragonflies, damselflies and spiders used various means to get their meals.

And many days, the minute hummingbirds were here too. Hovering at the diverse blossoms, they use the long bill to take nectar. The incredible wing movement was a marvel to see.

Recently, another nectar feeder has been arriving each day to use these same flowers for food. This one also hovers at the flowers and beats its wings with amazing speed to stay motionless in midair as it feeds.

But this one is not a hummingbird, or any kind of bird: it is a moth. Though making a humming sound, the moth is quieter than the lookalike bird. However, due to a nearly similar size and feeding habits, this moth is often called a hummingbird moth.

The stout body can be up to three inches long with white stripes and bars on the gray-brown thorax and abdomen. When hovering at the flowers, the body is rather easy to see, but the fast-moving wings on both sides are a blur.

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When finally slowed down with high-speed photography, we can see that the forewings also have white lines and the hind wings have a very colorful wide band of pink. The eyes are rather large with fairly long antennae, but it is the extremely long tongue, often as long as the body, unrolling from under the head that gets our attention. The tongue needs to be this length so that the moth can reach far into the tubal florets of the phlox to get nectar.

As I watched, I noticed quite an accomplishment of coordination. Though the moth was hovering with a very rapid wing beat, it proceeded to unroll the tongue to find and penetrate the flower. And with very quick motions, it moved on to other flowers.

During all the time that I followed this quick-flying insect, I never did see it stop and rest, unlike a hummingbird.

We often call these insects hummingbird moths, but they are also known as hawk moths due to their size. When I could finally get a good look at it, I could tell that it is a type of sphinx moth. This one is the white-lined sphinx.

This rather large and diverse group of moths is quite common in the Northland. They are usually big with drab colors on the outer wings; the inner wings may be more colorful. Most fly at night, as expected with moths, but some do their feeding at flowers in the daytime, as did the one that I was observing last week.

Maybe we know these moths better in the larval stage rather the than adult. Caterpillars are frequently large, thick and green. Since many have a sharp spine on the abdomen, they may be called hornworms. This spine is harmless and is only for show, to ward off a would-be predator.

Some also lift up the front end of the body in a threatening pose to discourage unwanted attention. It is this strange- looking position that led to the name of sphinx moths.

Populations of the white-lined sphinx moths vary much from year to year. Often we never have this visitor at the phlox, while other years they may be common.

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This viewing of a late-season moth on the late-season flower shows that there still is much to see as the summer wanes: quite a flight sight.

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including "Butterflies of the North Woods," "Spiders of the North Woods" and "Webwood." Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com .

Related Topics: ENVIRONMENTWEATHER
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