Thursday, 17 November 2016

Silkworms and Silkmoths?

Just to clarify matters, the silkworm is not a worm, but a caterpillar  - as a biologist, I consider these to be two very different creatures!  Most of the world’s silk comes from the domesticated mulberry silkworm, Bombyx mori.  This species has been selectively bred for around 5000 years and produces large, white, silken cocoons in which to pupate.  The caterpillar is an eating machine, not inclined to wander far, and although the caterpillars get quite large, most of their bulk is turned into that amazing silk cocoon, and the moth that emerges (if it gets the chance) is relatively small, quite plain and, although it has wings, it cannot fly. 

Silkmoth usually refers to a moth that is in the Saturniidae family - this is a pretty extensive family of moths, with examples in most countries worldwide.  All of them are quite big - some are huge, and most are tropical.  Confusingly, not all of them actually make silken cocoons, and where they do, the silk produced by the different species can vary considerably in quality and usefulness.   A lot of people breed these moths because they are absolutely stunning, and the caterpillars are often equally fantastic, so if they also produce useable silk, it’s an added bonus!

 Wild silk refers to the silk produced from any lepidoptera (ie a butterfly or moth) other than Bombyx mori and most wild silk comes from members of the Saturniidae family.  There are a few of them that are reared commercially and spinners will be familiar with tussah silk, which comes from Antheraea mylitta or sometimes from  the closely related Antheraea pernyi or Antheraea yamamai.    Wild silk does tend to suggest that these creatures are living wild and free, with their silk cocoons harvested from the forest - sad to say, I think this is probably pretty rare ....

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