Hawkmoth heaven!

With recent rains on the plains, the bush has sprung back to life and there are flowers and insects everywhere. On a recent evening walk I noticed a lot of hawkmoths whirring about a flowering Turraea bush. They were feeding on the nectar with their long tongues – the proboscis – which can be uncoiled and is used like a long flexible straw by the hawkmoths.

Here is a video of them in action – it was a real fluke to get this as they fly very fast and only feed for a short time just around and after sunset!

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Hawkmoths are fast-flying, long-lived and feed actively from many different kinds of flowers, a fair number of which they alone can pollinate.

Some 260 different species of hawkmoths are found across Africa. About two-thirds of these occur in East Africa, and a hundred species have been recorded in Kenya alone. Despite this relatively high diversity, little is known about their actual role as pollinators and especially as specialised pollinators of highly-adapted plants.

Convolvulus hawkmoth visiting the Turraea bush
Convolvulus hawkmoth visiting the Turraea bush

On a many-flowered shrub, like the Turraea, not all the flowers contain nectar. Even the ones with nectar, have only small quantities. This forces the feeding hawkmoth to move from flower to flower, plant to plant in search of adequate sustenance.

Watching for hawkmoths is a study in patience with brief interludes of intense excitement as I found out when watching these remarkable creatures in action.

Common Nephele hawkmoth pollinating Turraea
Common Nephele hawkmoth pollinating Turraea

Hawkmoths feeding from flowers give us a glimpse (literally!) of the long, complex evolutionary processes that shape our living world. The incredible adaptations of specialised flowers to their hawkmoth pollinators are some of the most amazing examples and evidence of co-evolution. If ever you find yourself near fragrant flowers at dusk keep an eye out for these swift, elusive phantoms!

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