Raising Silkworms

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Ava holding a large mulberry leaf

Do you want to raise  silkworms?  If I have any on hand I will be happy to share with you.  Leave me a message. 

I didn’t grow up with video games or Internet.  Living in Shanghai in a 弄堂 or a Shanghainese alley,  playing was creating imaginary locations in a new skyscraper construction site or catching various insects like crickets, beetles, cicadas, and praying mantis for fun.  Some of my fondest memories were raising silkworms.  My American classes have raised silkworms or 蚕宝宝 “cánbǎobao” in Spring to learn about insect life cycle as well as Chinese culture.   We usually raise them from eggs.  As the eggs begin to hatch, we would take a walk down to our school garden to find the tenderest new leaves from the large mulberry tree in the garden.  

Hanging around the mulberry tree

The big mulberry tree in our school garden!

Walking back from the garden with mulberry leave in our hands

“A silkworm spins all its silk till its death and a candle won’t stop its tears until it is fully burnt.” This Tang poem accurately describes the property of the silkworm.

History of Silk:

Legend has it that in ancient times, Lei Zu, the wife of Huang Di, taught people how to raise silkworms and how to extract the silk.

The Warring States Period, the beginning of feudalist society in Chinese history,  witnessed a prosperous time. The development of productivity popularized silk and it was no longer a luxury just for aristocrats.  The pattern, weaving, embroidery and dyeing skills were all improved as they were influenced by the free ideology of the time, while the silk designs had sense of a free and bold air about them.  The silk products excavated from Mawangdui Han Tomb are proof of the advanced skill and artistry of silk at this time.

Silk production peaked during the Han Dynasty when the manufactured goods were transported as far away as Rome from Chang’an (today’s Xian). The overland trade route was to become famously known as the Silk Road.  However, there was also a Marine Silk Road extending from Xuwen, Guangdong or Hepu, Guangxi to Vietnam. An outward bound voyage lasting five months would arrive in Vietnam; it would take another four months to reach Thailand; while a further twenty days would carry the merchants on to Burma. Two months later they would arrive in India and Sri Lanka, from where the silk would be eventually transported to Rome via the Mediterranean. After such a long journey, the price of silk was equivalent to that of gold. Legendary as it seems, tender silk connected China to the rest of the world.

These are picture representations of the silkworm life cycle.  Silkworms go through four stages of development, as do most insects:  egg, larva, pupa and adult.  The adult (imago) stage is the silkworm moth. The larva is the silkworm caterpillar.  Since the silkworm grows so much, it must shed its skin four times while it is growing.  These stages-within-a-stage are called instars.

silk worm life cycle


This is a video of silkworms in the final stage of their life cycle as adult moths from this Spring.

At this stage, they do not eat or fly.  I have found that some moths can live up to 3 weeks at this stage while others die after a week.  During this stage they lay hundreds of eggs which you can keep in a refrigerator and take out following Spring.  They will usually hatch 2 weeks after you take the eggs out of the refrigerator.  On occasions, as I had this past year, a silkworm was hatched in less than a week after the mother laid the eggs.  This is very unusual!

Living in Los Angeles, you can raise silkworms for longer periods around the year as mulberry leaves grow well in our temperate weather.  However, I would discourage you growing silkworms starting in fall as I did.  The reason is because during the first 10 days when eggs hatch, the silkworms need to eat very tender leaves but the mulberry trees in fall do not have any tender new leaves.

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