The vortex wake structure of the hawkmoth, Manduca sexta, was investigated using a vortex ring generator. Based on existing kinematic and morphological data, a piston and tube apparatus was constructed to produce circular vortex rings with the same size and disc loading as a hovering hawkmoth. Results show that the artificial rings were initially laminar, but developed turbulence owing to azimuthal wave instability. The initial impulse and circulation were accurately estimated for laminar rings using particle image velocimetry; after the transition to turbulence, initial circulation was generally underestimated. The underestimate for turbulent rings can be corrected if the transition time and velocity profile are accurately known, but this correction will not be feasible for experiments on real animals. It is therefore crucial that the circulation and impulse be estimated while the wake vortices are still laminar. The scaling of the ring Reynolds number suggests that flying animals of about the size of hawkmoths may be the largest animals whose wakes stay laminar for long enough to perform such measurements during hovering. Thus, at low advance ratios, they may be the largest animals for which wake circulation and impulse can be accurately measured.