Abbot’s Sphinx

Chopped down some grape vines today from a hoary ancient trunk that never gives up no matter how often I take out the clippers. It never makes grapes, just 3-story long vines that climb up and cover utility wires and everything else on the far side of the yard. Now I have blackberries planted over there, so between that and the wires, the grape vine has to go. The job done, I got the saw and walked over to my poor dead serviceberry tree next to the garden for the next phase of my chores when I realized I had a huge moth on my shoulder.

The startle reflex that happens when you realize a very large bug is in contact with your body passed, and I caught the moth on my hand — long, long legs; fat head and body (for a second I thought it was a cicada) and let it climb onto the dead serviceberry trunk. “Come look at this huge moth!” I called, and the kids came running. It must have been three inches across and its colors blended exactly with the tree. The moth’s wings were thin, like a butterfly that had just come from its pupa, and I thought at first that this moth too had just emerged and that we’d get to see its wings expand. I’d have to cut the tree down tomorrow instead.

I showed the kids the moth, including its injured wing; privately I assumed it wouldn’t make it for long. A moth that can’t fly can’t live. Just born, I thought, and already doomed. But maybe as the wings plumped out it would get better. It found a spot opposite the direction of the shining sun and sat motionless. “See the yellow under its wing,” I said. “See the little thing on its tail.” I took a few photos and we went inside for lunch. After the kids were settled in I went back to see if the wings were getting any bigger. I wanted them to be bigger, so I believed they were, but when I looked at my photos I saw that the moth was the same as it had been before.

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Abbot’s sphinx moth on dead serviceberry tree

Sphinx moth finally came into my head. Right — that’s what it was. I knew sphinx moths because of the huge green tomato/tobacco hornworm (it’s hard to tell which one) we’d had years earlier in the garden that had turned up with rows of parasitic wasp eggs sticking out of its back. It sat there frozen–and then slowly deflating–as the wasp larvae consumed its body from the inside over the course of several days. Tomato/tobacco hornworms become five-spotted sphinx moths and Carolina sphinx moths.

But this one was neither. I looked it up in the Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America. Abbot’s sphinx. A bee mimic, like the astonishing snowberry clearwings we’d seen hovering around a butterfly bush last summer on Peddocks Island in Boston Harbor. I was sorry I would probably not get to see this one fly. I learned that Abbot’s Sphinx moth mothers lay their eggs on grape leaves; I hoped that I had not just destroyed this one’s offspring. I hoped that I had not been the reason its wing was damaged. The year before I’d planted a lot of flowers for the sole purpose of attracting pollinators — wild flowers, or wild-looking flowers, some native, and this year they were coming in beautifully. The male Abbot’s feeds on nectar after dusk. The female stays hidden until after midnight.

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See the yellow under the hurt left wing?

Later we came out to move it back by the grape vine stump, the blackberry brambles. I had been thinking it was a sitting duck for whatever bird liked to eat Abbot’s sphinx moths sitting out there on the serviceberry. Earlier that day I’d seen a grackle flying over with what looked like a snake in its mouth. (If it was a worm it was a really big worm.) We love our little brown garter snakes –there are always several in the yard getting warm under rocks — so I’d already been bummed out by predators once that day. “Hawks gotta eat too,” as my dad used to say, but how often was I going to find something like this?

My oldest asked to carry the moth himself and he gently nudged it onto his hand. This time its wings began beating at high speed, like a hummingbird; it made a buzzing sound but could not rise. We carried it over the five or six steps to the blackberries. Its wings kept buzzing; I could see the yellow. Once again it crawled until found a spot opposite the direction of the sun’s light, under some green leaves, and then went absolutely still. I went out some time later but could not find it again.