"Moths are among the most diverse organisms, yet because most are nocturnal we rarely appreciate them. ... One effort to increase our knowledge about moths is National Moth Week, July 22-30, 2023" [Photo Courtesy Pixabay]
Hummingbird hawk moth (Macroglossum stellatarum) in flight, Yastrebets, Rila Mountains, Bulgaria
The top one looks more like the one I snared with the net once, although I think it's body had a lot of gray on it, too. [Image courtesy of Charles J. Sharp, sharpphotography.co.uk
By Dan Bodine
Yeah, National Moth Week is here, July 22-30. I saw a Hummingbird Hawk Moth sipping on some blooms late in the evening in the back garden a month or so back, and I cringed a bit.
Buried guilt? First time I’d seen one of these awesome critters in decades! Probably since I almost tortured one to death once!
It immediately reminded me, yes, of an innocent incident in my early 30s, a period of a sluggish few months before I’d enter the newspaper profession; when I drank regularly at the Irish “Quiet Man” in Dallas and insisted I was a free soul — e.g., long before marriages and assorted kids would reign me in!
It was during those free months of early-thru-summer ’74 when I’d finished college and was still living and working in Dallas — and somehow had gotten hooked on collecting butterflies.
Motorists on I-35E in Dallas certainly noticed me. I’d run along those shoulders in the openness of the grass with net in hand, chasing — and netting — some real beauts!
And there’d be horns honking and faces in windows cheering me on! And a lot of questions from some, no doubt, too, wondering: Who is that idiot out there?
Why I didn’t go to nearby parks or other public spaces, closer to where I lived to do my hunting? I don’t remember. But I-35E’s spacious shoulders, indeed, were my hunting grounds!
And I carried my net and other hobbyist tools with me in my little Datsun hatchback everywhere I went, too. Including visits to nearby area relatives. Almost always on weekends.
Which led me to torture one of these beloved insects all night once at my Grandmother Clara Casey’s house in Riesel, TX, a small town just east of Waco, thinking, indeed, I’d netted some kind of a prized butterfly.
I’d already soused it in alcohol to kill it, and even had it pinned up for mounting and placed inside a little plastic carrying box, yes, before going to bed that night at Grandmaw’s — thinking I’d captured some large butterfly for my collection!
Not attempting to dodge lesser shame here. But in writing this, I meant first to point out disappearing species. Which underlies our supposed Catch-22 Climate predicament.
Among them, butterflies, yes, are disappearing rapidly, especially across the western hemisphere, if you haven’t already noticed — in the face of habitat loss and fools like myself, yes, all now confronted with man-made Climate Change.
But if any of you have seen one of these less populous moth creatures feeding somewhere late in the evening, say, you know how easy it is to mistake them for a butterfly, too, or even a hummingbird!
They move their wings quicker though, and their body appears more stumpier.
Too, the proboscis — the long feeding tube of the Hummingbird Hawk Moths — are highly elongated, and they can curl it about as needed. Talk about masters at refueling in mid-air!
The incident in Riesel involved my cousin, Patrick (Pat) Howard, too — not just as a witness but as somewhat of an incident participant. This really scratched his curiosity. He never admitted it, but I think his gut told him this was a different species!
He wasn’t in on the attempted killing, though. Neither was my grandmother, of course. I was just doing my thing in her yard and she wasn’t too fond of it from the get-go!
Honestly, though, it’s just one of those stupid things people do when young, yeah — when they get off on something or another as a pastime — and not thinking too seriously about the ramifications of it.
Could I’ve said that? Then?
Well… Later, it bothered me, yes. And because a shade of guilt has lasted in me so long on this, too, I need to give it a little airing, probably. Pat will remember it well. At least his part.
Butterfly collecting, of course, has all but disappeared now. Along with dwindling numbers of butterflies first, of course — in what some are calling an “insect apocalypse” — which includes these magnificent hawk moths, too.
“The current rate of extinction (for species in general) is up to 10,000 times higher than the average historical extinction rates,” World Counts states. ‘We, the humans, are almost wholly responsible for this increase.'”
A good example of this “mankind crisis” is capitalist deforestation now around the globe wiping out so many habitats — including even the Amazon rainforest, once so critical not just for specie diversity but for the creation of many medicines critical throughout the world, too.
Millions of acres in the rainforest are being cleared now by wealthy landholders simply to graze cattle, i.e. More profit for sellers of beef, yes! (My old longtime-used radical capitalism appropriate here.)
But in the ’70s, prior to this, Pat and I had never encountered a Hummingbird Hawk Moth. Life, yes, still was our oyster.
Riesel was maybe an hour-and-a-half drive from Dallas. My late Uncle Kenneth Howard, a Riesel volunteer firefighter, had been killed fighting a grass fire in late January ’71.
Occasionally I’d drive down to visit my Aunt Selma, Pat and his wife, Aggie, and my Grandmother.
And on this trip, late in the evening, Pat an I spotted this strange butterfly! And I netted it!
After I’d pinned, mounted, and placed in a small plastic display case what I thought, indeed, was a special butterfly, and had set it up on top of the refrigerator in Grandmaw’s kitchen to dry this particular evening. It was getting late on a Saturday.
We all gathered in her kitchen to drink some Lone Star from her fridge. And swapped a few stories back and forth, of course.
Pat was more curious about the butterfly, though, and after a while said he wanted to go back home and search his encyclopedias some. [Long before internet.] And since it was already a tad bit late, yes, Grandmaw and I decided shortly it was time to hit the sack.
Her bedroom/TV room combined was a large room in the front of the little house — probably about two-thirds of the front — connecting directly to the kitchen about a third of the way on the northeast side, and running to the southwest corner side.
The kitchen, back toward the east end, set perpendicular to it, and ran the complete distance of the shorter east side of the house.
A short hallway from the kitchen, on the other side of this long wall dividing the house, ran past a utility or storage room, then to a bathroom, and finally a small guest bedroom at the opposite or northwest corner side of the house.
That’s where I was, sleeping soundly, when Grandmaw shook me awake the next morning.
I looked up to see her waving a wooden yardstick in my face she’d had many years for quilting — even in Cleburne, long before our families had moved her to Riesel — and she was on some kind of high horse of anger!
“Git up, and let that critter you caught last night out of this house!” she screamed. “It’s flying everywhere!”
I jumped out of bed puzzled, and followed her back down that short hallway into the kitchen.
Wherever that strange butterfly was — that apparently actually hadn’t died [not enough alcohol, maybe], and had freed itself from both the mounting board and the little plastic case — it immediately commenced buzzing us one side of the room to the other, crashing off windows, door panes…Back and forth, ZIP, ZIP, ZIP…
At one time Grandmaw attempted to swat it with her wooden yardstick, missed, and instead it came down hard on top of my head.
But it was no time to count casualties then. She was on a tear!
“Git that thang out of here!!” she screamed.
I looked around for the nearest exit, saw the back kitchen door, and quickly walked over and opened it. Screen door, too. WIDE OPEN!
Then stepped aside a couple of paces, keeping the doors open, and did some frantic waving of the hand with my remaining arm.
It took only a few seconds for the thang to notice wide open spaces, and…ZIP!
It was outa there!
Grandmaw watched it fly out, then more or less collapsed into a wooden chair she always used at the end of the breakfast table.
And finally laid the wooden yardstick on it.
Then she looked back at me. Stern face.
And said something like, “Danny! …’Son, don’t you ever bring one of those thangs in here again, you understand!?!”
I mumbled something like, “Sorry, Grandmaw. I was certain it was dead.”
And sat down at the table with her to give her a big hug.
And there were few words after that. I made preparations to return to Dallas.
An hour, maybe an hour and half later, Pat came over.
Had an encyclopedia. And laid it open on the breakfast table to a certain page. With a particular photo on it.
Standing, he motioned for me to come over. And then pointed to the photo.
“A Hummingbird Hawk Moth,” Pat said, quietly. This guy rarely raised his voice. “That’s what you caught.”
We both stared at the photo. Sat down and read about this new discovery. Both of us amazed we’d stumbled upon such a rare critter at this stage in our lives.
Grandmother wasn’t too excited.
The thang was gone.
And everyone was safe.
Including, I’ve long hoped, the Hummingbird Hawk Moth.
— 30 —