silk mothWith a desire to more fully understand the little beings that produce silk which has been the substrate of my artistic work for over thirty years, I took on a “summer project” to raise some silk worms in the ahimsa (non-harm) method, allowing a complete life cycle from egg to moth. Silk worms, specifically the bombyx mori, have been raised domestically for over 5000 years. They are now entirely dependant on human beings for their survival.

In mid June, 2010, I ordered 50 silk worm eggs from Oregon. They arrived in a small film canister by Federal Express. Soon I realized that the 50 eggs were closer to 300 and included both White Princess silkworms as well as Golden Zebra silkworms. They would hatch and increase their body size 10,000 times over their one month larvae stage, fast enough to keep me awake at night. I had my hands full.

My planned schedule: Eggs hatch in 6 – 20 days (July 4)
Caterpillars eat for 26 days (July 30)
Spin cocoons over three days ((August 2)
Moths emerge in 21 days (August 23)
Moths lay eggs in two days (August 25)
silk moth eggs On June 26, I spread the tiny eggs on a white dish.
They were no bigger than a pin head.

The first 20 eggs hatched during the early morning of July 4th, producing 1/8” tiny worms called kego or “tiny babies,” no bigger than a pencil lead. They took off looking for food around the edge of the plate. I learned that they must eat within 4 hours
or die of dehydration.

silk worms
silk worms Introducing young mulberry leaves  (the only leaf bombyx mori silk worms will eat) got their attention and they began munching along the leaf edges. They rendered a leaf into lace filigree in two hours.
In a day or two, as more hatched, I was able to wean the growing caterpillars to Silk Worm Chow for the next two weeks. Silk Worm Chow is a pulverized powder that I could reconstitute at home, and is shown here as sliced logs that I replenished three times a day. Bigger caterpillars

They grew  —
and more hatched —
and grew.

The final count was 283 worms!!!

They shed their outer hairy casing in five ‘instars’ over 28 days, followed by a rapid growth and an increasing appetite. growing
binge eating At 18 days old they were moved
to mulberry leaves and began binge eating four times a day over the next week.

By August 1st, at 28 days old,
they started producing silk thread and
gummy sericin from their mouth orifice
— looking for a good place to cocoon. 

Spinning began.

transitions Some were still eating while others cocooned.
Here you can see some ripening mulberries that were of no interest — leaves only, please.  
Zebra caterpillars (left) spin golden cocoons
and White Princesses (right) spin white cocoons.
cocoons They spun in frames, crevasses,
under newspapers that lined their box.
And in egg cartons provided. cocoons
cocoons In the end, 207 golden zebra
and 34 white princesses made cocoons,
displaying various spin abilities.
A few days after the last caterpillar made a cocoon, four moths
emerged from their own cocoons, found a mate and laid eggs
— in six hours.
emergence As the caterpillar matured in the cocoon, it secreted an alkaline
enzyme that burned a hole in the casing allowing it to emerge as a moth. In doing so, it broke the 3000’ of silk thread that is usually ‘reeled off’ and instead produced “short end” silk.
The moths arrive with no eyes or mouths or ability to fly,
but process comb-like antennae
that sense a mate 100’ away.
silk moth portrait
silk moth with cocoon

They find their beloved and mate in a few hours producing 200 – 500 eggs and ending their happy natural lives.

Birth to death — in 48 days!

After two months of full-time obsession, and the help of multiple friends who worked to locate local mulberry trees, hauled garbage bags of leaves, cleaned trays, fed, observed and did caretaking with me — I have far greater respect for those whose livelihood is connected to sericulture — silkworm raising. I hold also hold in awe and great respect, this miracle that produces lovely silk, as a natural process of life.

I actually miss the ‘little masters’ as they are called. And now, I must investigate how to spin these cocoons that I have collected and to use them in my own personal art work.

With great admiraton,
Dh. Kiranadā        August 2010

© All images are the property of Kiranada Sterling Benjamin and may not be reproduced in any form without her permission.