From Hercules to Micro-Moths

When I first began learning about moths, I had an assumption that they were usually gray and about the size of a butterfly. To be honest, I thought moths were boring. It turns out that I was very wrong.

Moths have an amazing variety of sizes, shapes, and colors. The largest moths in the world have wingspans of 10-12 inches and a wing surface area of about 60 square inches.  The smallest moths are called micro-moths and have wingspans of no more than 20 mm (less than an inch).  With such a variety of species out there, moths are anything but dull and boring.

There are three moths that seem to be contenders for the world’s largest moth.  These moths are the Hercules, the White Witch, and the Atlas Moth. Identifying which moth is the largest depends on how you are measuring its size. Moths can be measured by wing span or by wing surface area. So if we are looking at wing span the Hercules Moth would be the winner. However, if we are looking at wing surface area the Atlas Moth would win. Nevertheless, all these moths are fascinating creatures and are worthy of recognition.

The Hercules Moth

The Hercules Moth lives in northern Australia and New Guinea. It has a wingspan of about 11 inches and a wing surface area of about 47 inches.  The Hercules Moth does not have a usable mouth and only lives for about 2 -8 days.  However, the Hercules Moth can spend up to two years in its cocoon eating and preparing for its adult life. (1, 2)

Hercules Moth/Photo Credit Australian Butterfly Sanctuary

The White Witch

The White Witch lives in Southern Mexico and South Africa. It has a wingspan of about 11 inches.  The White Witch will live for about 2 weeks and has an amazing wing pattern that helps it blend into the forest. (1, 2)

White Witch Moth/Photo Credit: World Atlas

The Atlas Moth

The Atlas Moth is a native species to China and Indonesia. It has a wingspan of about 10 inches and a wing surface area of approximately 62 square inches.  Similar to the Hercules Moth, the Atlas Moth does not have a mouth and must consume all the energy and nutrients it needs to survive when it is a caterpillar. (1, 2)

Atlas Moth/Photo Credit: Shutterstock-679008436


On the other end of the moth spectrum are the micro-moths.  There are approximately 62,000 of these little insects worldwide. The smallest moth is the Stigmella maya.  This micro-moth is found in Mexico and has a wingspan of under ⅛ of an inch or 2.5 millimeters.(3)

Author James Lowen in his new book Much Ado About Mothing, says this about looking for micro-moths:

“Doing so involves thinking differently about life. To a micro-moth a single bush can be an island of habitat. Spotting micro-moths involves slowing down, constricting your world, focusing so intently on nothingness, that passersby assume you are away with the fairies.”

Okay, I will have to admit I had to go look up what “away with the fairies” means. It turns out it is an Gaelic saying that implies someone is eccentric, distracted, or in a dream world. So this totally makes sense especially if I think about my behavior the other day chasing a butterfly.

It was late in the afternoon and I was out in the driveway trying to get a picture of a Northern Pearly-Eye butterfly. This butterfly was not being as cooperative as I had hoped. I started trying to take its picture while I was standing up. Then I got down on the ground. Then when it moved and I jumped up to follow it.  If someone was watching me, I bet they would have thought my behavior was a bit odd. Now imagine watching me running around the yard like that in the evening and not being able to see the insect that I am chasing.  I bet that would raise some eyebrows.

Northern Pearly-Eye

Don’t forget Moth Week is July 17 -25. Next week’s posts will include information about moth related activities for kids and stories about the Luna moth. I hope to see you back here for that and I hope to learn about your moth-ing stories.


  1. Monster Moths
  2. World What is the Largest Moth
  3. Natural History Museum: Tiniest Moths in the World
  4. Lowen, James; Much Ado About Mothing

17 thoughts on “From Hercules to Micro-Moths

Add yours

  1. The wonder and beauty of the creatures and your report notwithstanding, Mark, what made me chuckle at the bigness of this small world – you had to go look up ‘away with the fairies’. 🙂
    From where I am sitting, not a linguist in the scholarly sense,it may be that the Gaelic connection is the Gaelic fairy tales. Almost an English putdown for a Scot? 🙂 Thanks for your labour of love, I can marvel at, vicariously.

    1. Hi Barbara, very interesting point you have about what was the cultural context behind using the phrase. I was wondering if it was an insult or a playful observation. I guess it could be either depending on the relationship between the speaker and the person. Thanks for the continued support! Be well.

      1. hi Mark, the Brits don’t do insult 😛 – I think the connotation is a bit in between the two, teasing but a bit critical too, I’d say. 🙂

  2. “Away with the fairies” – that’s a term I haven’t heard in such a long time and it put a big smile on my face. Although I live in England, I was brought up in Scotland where it’s a commonly used phrase .. . of which I was accused often, particularly by my mother who was a Glaswegian (think Billy Connolly). 😀

    The photographs are wonderful. All the moths are beautiful, but the Atlas moth is spectacular! Their life-span is so short – it makes me think that they must have a great purpose in being here to accomplish it in so little time.

    1. Hi Lesley, thank you for adding more context to the phrase. It can be a little challenging to understand the nuance behind local sayings. I was even debating leaving that part out because I wasn’t sure of the story behind the words.
      It was a little surprised at the short life span too. It does make you wonder. Be well!

  3. I’m glad you are enjoying your foray into the world of the moths. I need to find a place where I can upload a bunch of pictures for sharing. I have lots of moths here. My front porch seems to provide an ideal resting place for so many beautiful and interesting moths I never know what I’ll discover there. Of course, we admire them and leave them alone as they are sleeping. I’m also glad you quoted and kept the phrase “away with the fairies” because it is one of my favorites! Mythology and folklore play an important role in how humans have made sense about the natural world around them. Its an important cultural context in how a society interacts with the nature around it.

    I also love that their is a moth called “the White Witch” and I will follow your links to se if there are any stories associated with how it got its name. If it was considered an omen of protection or things to come.

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