WTF Wednesday: Hummingbird Hawk Moths in Spain

Posted on
Nov 9, 2011
Posted in: WTF

This week’s WTF Wednesday takes us to an open-air market in Barcelona. A few weeks ago, I found myself there with Rand and his coworkers Joanna and Kenny. (Here is a photo of them, posing for there as-yet-unnamed, un-recorded, and un-released first album.)


Having imbibed one-too-many aguas sin gas, I left the three of them outside the market, in front of a plant nursery, while I popped into a bathroom. Though none of them spoke Spanish, I figured they’d be fine for a few minutes without me.

Famous last words, if ever there were any.

When I returned, I found them excitedly snapping pictures of a creature that was hovering around a lavender bush, while an older woman was speaking to them brusquely in Castellano.

“Honey, look!” Rand said, pointing to the unidentified flying object as it flitted from flower to flower. “It’s a hummingbird.” 

“Um, no,” I said, leaning in to get a better look. “It’s not.”

The woman continued to frantically speak to us. My Spanish isn’t great, but I understood the one word she kept repeating again and again – “pica.” When I had visited Spain during a school trip in high school, my host father had used that word to describe spicy food. “Pica.” To sting.

“What she saying?” Rand asked me.

“She saying that this bug,” I said, pointing to the insect that zipped around the plant, the one my husband and his colleagues had gravitated around, “will bite us.”

Now, for the record, my husband, Joanna, and Kenny are pretty damn sharp. However, given the speed that this sucker was moving, and the woman yelling at them in a language they didn’t know, at a quick glance, it would have been easy to confuse it for a hummingbird.

But I’ve seen hummingbirds before in my aunt’s garden in Southern California. They take off the second you approach. Their beaks don’t curl up into a proboscis when they’re done feeding. No, this was something else. This was … well, at the time, I didn’t know. Rand had taken a few photos, but they were too small to make out anything.

It wasn’t until last night that I finally uploaded my photos from the trip onto my laptop, and was able to get a better look at the creature in the photos. Here it is from a distance:

It looks rather innocuous from this distance.

And here’s a close-up:


Err, sorry. I need to remember that it’s just a photo. But still. Rand, Kenny, and Joanna were mere inches away from this thing while the woman was yelling at them to move back because its bites stung like hell, but none of them understood. I am horrified just thinking about it. After researching it a bit online, the best I can figure out is that it’s a hummingbird hawk moth – a type of moth native to Southern Europe.

Now, I know that knowledge is power and we only fear the unknown and blah blah blah. Knowing what this creature was should have made me exponentially less scared of it, right? Sure, PROVIDED WE HAD NOT BEEN DEALING WITH A MOTH.

I detest moths. I don’t mind spiders or caterpillars or beetles, but moths are the single most horrifying thing, EVER.

Years ago, back when I was in college and living in a studio apartment, I decided to take a shower after a particularly long and stressful day. As I was sweetly minding my own business, I noticed a moth near the window. It was roughly the size of game hen. I breathed deeply, determined not to run screaming across my tiny apartment while naked and dripping wet. My solution? I’d ignore the moth. It would stay where it was, and I would stay where I was, and everything would be fine. I wouldn’t even look at it.

Except that I did. I kept peering back at it, to make sure it was still where it was UNTIL I TURNED AROUND AND THE MOTH WAS GONE AND OH GOD WHERE IS IT SWEET HEAVENLY FATHER IT’S ON MY THIGH.

My shrieks echoed down the hall of my building, and had my neighbors not been ineffectual stoners I’d like to think that they would have called the police.

Thankfully, my most recent encounter with one of these godless creatures (because clearly they were designed by Satan and don’t YOU DARE TELL ME OTHERWISE) ended rather well. BUT STILL. I had left Rand, Joanna, and Kenny alone for less than 4 minutes. In that time, they managed to find not only a moth, but one that leaves bites which are roughly as painful as a wasp’s.

Seriously. WTF. I can’t even look at the photo without shuddering. Me. The girl who eats guinea pigs. Reduced to a sniveling mess by a photo of a moth.

Sigh. At least one thing is certain: I am never, ever going to forget the meaning of the word “pica.” And I suspect that neither will anyone else who was with me that day.

Leave a Comment

  • Hahahaha! I laughed so hard when I read “KILL IT WITH FIRE”

    I’m from Barcelona and I swear I had never seen this monster in all my life!

    • Ruth

      “Kill it with fire” gave me a LOL too.

  • Ahhhh, this post made me so uncomfortable. I too am scared of moths, which everyone thinks is silly. But the thing is that moths have no predictable flight pattern, so you never know when they’re going to fly straight at you, as you found out. Moths are awful, I hope I’m never faced with a giant biting one.

    • Everywhereist

      This is totally it. They’re creepy and flit around in weird patterns and they often have mock-eyeballs on their wings that just freak me out.

  • Melanie

    Gah! That thing is horrible.

    I have an ungodly fear of all shelled bugs. Only because there was once a huge beetle in my room and I smashed it with a steel toed boot. When I came back with Kleenex to wipe him up, he was gone! I hit that sucker good too. Any bug that can survive a 4 pound shoe being swung at it with mighty force, I do not want anything to do with.

    • Everywhereist

      I lived in Florida for 7 years. I hear you. Some of those suckers are indestructible.

  • Colleen

    Wow…that proboscis-thing is freaky. Your moth aversion is like mine with mosquitoes. Except I can’t ignore them. They’re attracted to my blood. I have to kill them. And those mothers don’t die. They try to live, and I scream while killing them. Sorry if this went a little pyscho-commando, I just can’t stand mosquitoes.

    • Everywhereist

      Totally acceptable to go psycho-commando when it comes to those damn dirty bugs. Did you see my post about bug bite remedies a little while back? Wrote it after mosquitoes ravaged me in Machu Picchu.

  • Huh. I just heard about these things on Science Friday last week. In this video, the “researcher” shoots tiny modeling clay cannonballs at the hawk moths to see how they handle it. I wonder if he got a federal grant?

    • Ha that “researcher” is me (and my PI Ty Hedrick).

      Funding comes from several sources. As a graduate student, my salaray generally comes from teaching university students anatomy and other biology-related subjects, as does most of my advisor’s. Some promising co-workers of mine are lucky enough to be funded by precious Research Assistantships or Fellowships, but I am not one.

      For research supplies, a relatively small amount of Air Force and Navy funding earmarked for research funded this project because the miolitary is highly interested in flight stability, for what should be quite obvious reasons!

      Please also understand that we are studying basic biology and advancing human knowledge. Since the outcome of science research is intrinsically an unknown, one must wait for results to judge its worth.

      Respectful Regards,
      Jeremy Greeter

      • Jamie

        @Jeremy I actually loved your video of the cannonballs and the moth and I love all this backstory even more. I didn’t mean to offend you–I was only funning. You have to admit that as experiments go, it’s a little wacky.

        • Haha! No worries! It is quite wacky! Just hope I can finally publish on it sometime soon…

  • Kenny Martin

    At first glance I misread the sentence, “… while I popped into a bathroom.”

    • Xenia

      Me too! 🙂

  • What the-? I saw one of these — or something rather like — last month when we were in Tokyo. The kid and I got really close to see what it was but then my niece grabbed my daughter and took her very far away from it. I didn’t understand what she said (because I’m a horrible person who hasn’t yet learned his wife’s native language) but everything about her physical state suggested “stay the fuck away from that thing.”

    I also figured it wasn’t a hummingbird when it’s “beak” retracted. Freaky.

    • Everywhereist

      Yup – ditto here. When I saw that I quietly explained to Rand that not only was that thing not a hummingbird, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t human.

  • On the plus side, should one ever find themselves in a famine situation – that thing could feed you for a week. IT’S HUGE!!

    • Everywhereist

      Dear god, WHY WOULD YOU PUT THE IMAGE OF EATING IT INTO MY HEAD? You realize you’ve ruined my life, right Kristy? You are my Final Destination.

      • I’m crying with laughter but this comment from Kristy just sent me over the edge…. BWAAHAHAHAHAHahahaha – Oh, thank you for this!

  • For some reason the phrase “OH GOD WHERE IS IT SWEET HEAVENLY FATHER IT’S ON MY THIGH” made me severely physically laugh out loud. I love your writing style.

    Just for interests’ sake, “pica” is a disorder that causes people or animals want to eat unusual things like dirt and stuff. The list on the Wikipedia Page on Pica says that people with pica may want to eat ” metal, clay, coal, sand, dirt, soil, feces, chalk, pens and pencils, paper, batteries, spoons, toothbrushes, soap, mucus, latex gloves, ash, gum, lip balm, contact lenses, tacks and other office supplies, etc.”

    I’m pretty sure that’s not what you were talking about though.

    • Everywhereist

      I used to want to bite and ingest my cherry ChapStick, but I don’t think that’s what you mean.

  • Lisa

    Honey, moths can’t sting or bite you, they have nothing to sting or bite you with. They have a trunk that they can drink nectar through, that is all. I wouldn’t want it on my thigh either, I hear you there, but we should not wish them dead. No pollinators, no flowers, no fruit.

    • Xenia

      I dig the whole ecosystem preservation thing, but I’d love a world without roaches!

  • Just for the record, they don’t bite. 🙂 Also, I think they’re beautiful, but I won’t try to convince you!

    • Everywhereist

      I found several sites that claimed that they do, indeed, leave painful welts (something on their tales?) from stings that they leave. It’s not that I doubt you, Anne (or Lisa, for that matter), it’s just that between the screaming Spanish woman and the size of that sucker, I’m not taking any chances. 🙂

  • I’m glad someone shares my fear of moths. I too, can eat just about anything (chicken feet and fish balls, etc.) but cannot stand the sight of moths so much so that I don’t like butterflies because they remind me of moths. A huge moth once laid eggs in my room, which has safely scared me for life.

  • Whoah! That insect looks mothterous! LOL…you are hilarious! I just discovered your blog through the Times Top Blogs list and am really enjoying your writing. 🙂

    • Everywhereist

      Thanks so much, Monica!

      Also, “MOTHTEROUS?” Brilliant! I am SO stealing that.

  • OMG! I had one of these moths in the verbena down here in East Texas about 2 weeks ago. I was enchanted and sat watching it flit from flower to flower for a good 10 minutes. I knew it was a Hummingbird Moth of some sort – but had no idea they could BITE! ACK! I’m a bit less enchanted now.

  • Just came accross your blog in the Times. Great fun!
    The ‘mothican stand-off’ was brilliant when it ended on your thigh, Hillarious.
    Look forward to reading more..

    Alec black

  • I’m not a fan of any bugs. But i’d have probably run out of that shower screaming and naked if that moth had landed on me. Pictures are pretty though.

  • I stepped in the shower this morning and found a moth in there with me. Now before reading this post, I don’t even know if I would have cared but today I was totally freaked out! The moth met an unfortunate demise down the drain (after some struggles – eek) and I was able to shower in peace. As if my irrational fear of crickets wasn’t enough now it looks like I’ll have to add moths to the list (thanks a lot)! PS – I’m Dan Thies’ sister in law and absolutely love your blog!

    • Everywhereist

      I had to get over my fear of crickets – Rand and I had pet frogs for a while, and guess what they ate? Yup. Crickets. EW.

      And yay – I LOVE DAN THIES. 🙂 I am trying to get him to guest blog again.

  • Jess

    Coming from Australia we have a LOT of scary bugs, snakes, spiders, sharks, sting rays etc etc etc that can kill you but I have never seen anything like that MOTH. Seriously. That is the stuff of nightmares. Mainly because I never knew it a moth COULD sting, I mean since when??? Now I have to worry about it. A lot. I find it much easier just to walk around in blissful ignorance of the things that can hurt you. Perhaps not safer but certainly better for my anxiety levels.

  • Kim

    I’m glad to find others that share mothophobia. As a biology student married to an insect collector, I know in my head that moths can’t hurt you in any way. They truly have beautiful colors and patterns.But they still secretly want to attack. So do grasshoppers, which also do not bite or sting, but are terrifying.

  • Holy crap! That would scare the shit out of me!

  • I also, LOL the MOTHEROFGOD line! I applaud your literary style!

  • UnicodeJoe

    when the page loaded and I got to the first picture of the bug I just went “ok it’s time to turn off images now”. I hate bugs.


  • truth sayer

    much ado about nothing

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