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Elephant Hawkmoth HAWKMOTHS
IN CUMBRIA

Members of this interesting group of medium to large moths are notable for their exotic colourings and behaviour, being related to over a 1000 species worldwide, most of which are found in the tropics. Some Hawkmoths (about 8) are resident in the UK, but a few others migrate here from Southern Europe and Africa.

Poplar HawkmothEasily the most abundant resident in Cumbria is the Poplar Hawkmoth (photo left). It is easily recognised by its unusual shape, not least because at rest its hindwings project well beyond the leading edge of the forewings. It is attracted to light but may occasionally be disturbed from a resting place during the day, especially around its foodplants of Poplars and Sallows. Unlike most other hawkmoths it has a short proboscis as adults don't feed. It is on the wing in Cumbria in July.

The Elephant Hawkmoth (title photo and larva left) is also common throughout Cumbria because of the abundance of its foodplants - Willowherbs. This large, pink and olive-green species is common in gardens at night in late June and July, especially on Honeysuckle and Rhododendron, but is often over-looked unless moth lights are used. The large fully grown larva, having the appearance of an Elephant's trunk, has spots on segments 4 and 5 - when threatened it withdraws the first three segments and appears to have huge threatening eyes. It is a night time feeder but can sometimes be found by day in September near its foodplants, as it searches for a hibernation site. The pupa is in a soft cocoon which can be found in leaf litter or other debris (sometimes in a conservatory or greenhouse).Small Elephant Hawkmoth

Much more local in the county is the related Small Elephant Hawkmoth (photo right), a species found on limestone grassland, where its Bedstraw foodplants grow. It is mainly recorded from limestone areas in the south of the county. It is smaller and more yellowish than its large relative and has a more prominent and more wavy pink band at the rear of the forewing. Although not a day flyer, it is not uncommon to find freshly emerged adults in late May during the afternoon. Its larva is even more like a minature Elephant's trunk.

The final resident species in Cumbria is the large Eyed Hawkmoth. Here it is at its northern limit and although relatively common it is not often picked up by light traps. The eye spots on pink hindwings are easily picked out as a diagnostic feature. It is a species of parks and gardens with Willows and Sallows but will also use cultivated Apples and Crab Apples as a foodplant.

Because of their size Hawkmoths can travel large distances and several immigrant species reach Britain in most years. The only two occurring regularly in Cumbria are the infamous Hummingbird Hawkmoth and the spectacular Convolvulus Hawkmoth.

Hummingbird HawkmothThe smaller Hummingbird Hawkmoth is well known for its habit of nectaring like a Hummingbird during the day, often in bright sunshine. Amidst the phenomenal whirr of wings as it hovers, it is possible to pick out the orange hindwings and the white-spotted abdomen, but the brown forewings appear "invisible" as the human eye cannot pick them out at these speeds. There is also an audible buzz from the wings. It "jumps" to the next flower with such speed that it is sometimes hard to spot where it has gone. Its foodplants are members of the Bedstraw familyhummingbird hawkmoth but in the garden it is likely to be seen at Buddleia, Petunias and even Busy Lizzies. When it does stop to warm up in sunshine it's often hard to spot against stonework (see right) and looks quite inconspicuous. Studies have shown that the species remembers good nectar sources, returning at the same time each day to the same plants. It can appear at any time from April through to October but more usually in Cumbria in September. In some years it occurs in number, in other years not at all or very rarely. There were large influxes in 2000 and 2006 and a smaller one in 2005. With milder winters, it now over-winters as an adult in the south west of England.

The Convolvulus Hawkmoth is large enough, with a 10 cm wingspan, to be mistaken for a bat in the poor light of dusk and its larva is something of a monster, being as much as 11 cm long and 2 cm thick when fully grown. Breeding in Africa and southern Europe the new brood often migrates northwards and appears in the UK in September and October, but in Cumbria it is only recorded in ones and twos in occasional years. As the name implies, the foodplant is Bindweed but it is said that in Britain it is attracted well to Nicotiana (although keeping these in flower until September is not easy). In late September 2006, a well-developed example of the larva tried to cross the drive of a resident of Baycliffe in south Cumbria. This is quite a rare occurrence in the UK, larvae rarely going on to develop to full size here.

Several other migrant Hawkmoths have been recorded in the last 50 years in Cumbria but most very rarely or only on one occasion.