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Spinning Silk...worms

Posted Aug 26 2008 11:37pm

Fun science activities in a not-quite crunchy household often have an ecological bend- intended or not. And so it is with raising silk worms.

As play silks are one of our favorite toys, we were delighted to be given a number of tiny silk "caterpillars" (they are not really worms, despite the name) by The Hamster’s preschool teacher. The basic premise is, take the silkworm home, feed it mulberry leaves; watch it grow to amazing proportions in a short time then see it spin a cocoon and emerge as a moth few weeks later.

Although this is our third year raising silk worms, we’re still caught off guard by HOW MUCH THEY EAT! Despite our best efforts, we’re always running out of mulberry leaves and searching frantically for a tree to supply their needs. The corollary, of course is…how much they poop! This, of course, delights The Hamster but, requires endless box cleaning by mom.

After a few frantic weeks they begin to excrete silk from their mouths and build cocoons, which we all enjoy as the translucent silk allows for an inside view of the process. Then, nothing until they begin to hatch as moths. “With the same caterpillar head!” The Hamster proclaimed one year. Hmmm, he’s right- should we not have expected that?

MY DH, of course, was fascinated by the moths, err, mating abilities. Though they are unable to fly, they do make the most of their earthbound state.

My interest, of course was in the science and history of the silk worm. And, there I found my crunchy connection. Having worked in marketing for companies that sold everything from food to face cream, I’ve learned that looking too closely into any manufacturing process can lead to discovering unpleasant truths. And so it was with silkworms.

Since silk has played an important role in history, driving trade and inciting battle, we’ve enjoyed sharing this information with The Hamster. Less exciting has been sharing the details of the actual manufacture, which traditionally involves, boiling or baking the worm alive to harvest the silk.

Thank goodness for Peace Silk! Rather than preserve the cocoon to allow unraveling into a single thread, as has been done for thousands of years, the “peace silk” process allows the worm to emerge and the silk to be spun into usable fiber – a bit more expensive and time consuming, of course but, easier on the conscience! Variously labeled as organic, vegetarian or peace silk, it has become easier and easier to find online and in specialty stores- yet another reason to read the label.

As a learning experience, raising silk worms is tough to beat. History, biology, mechanics and ecology - killing, err… peacefully intercepting several birds with one stone.

While it's optimal to feed silkworms fresh mulberry leaves, you can obtain kits complete with silkworm eggs, container and artificial food, here. One of our goals, this year will be to harvest the silk peacefully, of course. We'll report back on the results.

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