Getting Up Close With Nature

Hummingbird moth
Hummingbird moth
You may know that last May I took a Nature Writing Class—a first for me. Looking back on that experience, I believe it reinforced several habits that would benefit all writers.


Be specific.


Perhaps the foremost is be specific. Don’t say “a tree,” say, “a willow oak.” Instead of “a riot of colorful blooms” say, “a riot of colorful roses.” The more specific the noun, the more vivid the image in the readers’ minds. And in being specific about flora and fauna, it helps greatly if you know what you’re talking about!

Tiger swallowtail butterflies
Tiger swallowtail butterflies

Be curious.


Also, be curious. If you don’t stop with, “Wow! Gorgeous butterfly,” you could quickly learn that these are Tiger Swallowtail Butterflies, and that they are the official state insect of Virginia. Helpful into? Who knows?


As implied in the above statement, getting into nature means getting into learning. My most recent case is the hummingbird moth.

Clearwing hummingbird moth and flower
Clearwing hummingbird moth (Photo: Rodney Campbell [CC BY 2.0])


Hummingbird moths are so named because they look and move like hummingbirds. They can remain suspended in front of a flower while they unfurl their long tongues (about twice the length of the moth’s body) to sip nectar. Some claim the beating of their wings hum like hummingbirds. Much as it might look and sound like a tiny bird, it’s an insect.

Farmer's Almanac 2019


Deborah Tukua posted fascinating facts about hummingbird moths in Home and Garden. Hummingbird moth is the common name for several moth species, including Common Clearwing, Snowberry Clearwing, Five-Spotted Hawkmoth, and White-Lined Sphinx. (Some species of Hummingbird Moths are limited to Europe, Asia, or Africa.)

Tobacco hornworm
Dave Pape [Public domain]

Learning About Hummingbird Moths

  • The hornworm caterpillar gives rise to the hummingbird moth.
  • A type of hummingbird moth was featured in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). During filming, “They were flown first class… and had special living quarters.”
  • The hummingbird moth’s wings beat up to 70 beats per second (depending on species). They can fly up to 12 mph.
  • Hummingbirds have beaks. A Hummingbird Moth has a tongue-like proboscis that rolls out of its coiled tube to reach nectar deep inside flowers.
  • Its inherent protections include big, menacing eyes and it’s resemblance to a bird instead of a bug.
  • They range in length from 2 to 2.5 inches (noticeably shorter than a hummingbird) and are covered in gray hair resembling feathers, with white, olive, rust or brown markings or variations.
  • Their wingspan ranges from 2 to 6 inches, depending on the species.
  • They typically feed on flower nectar in daytime, but can feed at dusk on night-blooming flowers.
Hornworm (Photo: Scot Nelson [Public Domain])

Hummingbird moths are plump and spindle-shaped, and they have a a short tail that spreads like a fan. As noted above, color variations are typical, but usually include reddish brown. Their wings are covered in scales which may be lost, leaving their wings clear.


They feed on the nectar of several flowers. In my case, they feed on butterfly bush and verbena. Adults start flying in early spring but are more prominent in summer and early fall. In the north, there is only one generation per year. In the south, usually two at least. They tend to visit the same flowers the same time each day. And because of their reproductive habits (that I won’t get into here), if you have them one year, you are likely to have them again.

hummingbird moth on verbena

So, now you know a bit about a gorgeous insect that lots of people don’t know exists.

Bottom line for writers

Be specific, be curious, keep learning. And I might add, read broadly—beyond the relatively narrow range of your particular interest or genre.


So, I am taking another Nature Writing class this fall. Last spring I became aware of my previous tendency to treat nature vaguely: hot, dreary, enjoying early spring blooms, lots of birds at the feeder. My appreciation of nature is now richer and more precise.


And I’m hoping for more hummingbird moths next year!

hummingbird moth feeding

Adding Nature to Your Writing

virginia wildlife squirrel

I’ve written before about the use of pets in writing. But what I am writing about now is not domesticated animals or houseplants. Of course, there are lots of versions of nature writing, from guides to insects, shells, birds, etc., to books like Hawk, which gets into all sorts of emotional and philosophical issues—but I’m not writing about that, either—no, not writing in which nature is the focus.


Nature to illuminate character. Does your character respond equally to flora and fauna? Why or why not? Does your character respond very selectively to nature? Maybe only attracted to or aware of rabbits?


bunny virginia
Or maybe your character is a gardener in his/her leisure time. How does that play out? Flower arrangements for a dinner or wedding? Flower shows? Garden club commitments that conflict with plot demands, creating tension?


Is your character an indoor person rather than an outdoor person—generally keep the natural world at arm’s length?Why? Allergies? Fears? Sun sensitivity? Physical handicap?


What sort of nature draws your character? The great outdoors? The eastern woods? Again, why?


All of these sorts of things can be inserted as grace notes, dropped in strategically, not highlighted but effective.
Nature to set the mood or tone.
Thunderstorms give us one tone—threat, foreboding, physical danger.


virginia landscape
Sunny landscapes and/or skies create the opposite—good cheer, good luck, a generally upbeat tone.


So, including nature notes can illuminate character and set mood or tone. How else do you use bits of nature?