Monday, 4 October 2010

The Silk Worm Diaries - chapter two:

No cheating or peeking, or fast-forwarding! Read on (as Mr Bennett said in Jane Austen's 'Pride & Prejudice'), and then see my final entry written this evening (Monday 4th October, 2010)

Monday 27th September, 2010 (20.15): I put the babies to bed, swathed in my best American muslin (sorry, Kristi, all I could find in a potential worm-wandering emergency). Will they be OK? Believe me, living in a farming community, once breeding my own ducks, geese and hens, I am not sentimental about animals; but a challenge is a challenge and I am now responsible for these tiny creatures. And I want some silk!

Tuesday 28th September, 2010 (8.00 am): I draw the curtain (remove the muslin) from the 'oaks' and take the lid off the box containing the 'eris' - for I am not sure if they have sufficient air. Do the larvae sleep at night? For there's not much evidence of leaves having been eaten. There's a quantity of worm pooh in both boxes so at least they are still alive. I am convinced the eris have doubled in size since I bought them on Sunday, but that may be wishful thinking and they are still depressingly miniscule. Maybe I should photograph them each day for comparison.

Wednesday 29th September, 2010 (17.52): All is well, but then four of the Oaks went walkabout. One on the muslin; it would not release it's hold, took me 15mins to encourage it back to the hawthorn leaves. Then two more walked around the edge of the box and another squeezed its way down the glass jar and almost into the water, even though I'd padded that out with kitchen towel to guard against drowning. So now the end of the hawthorn twigs are encased in damp paper and the bunch laid in the box with a mesh pizza tray on the top. They've grown in size and seem to be very active during the day. The Eris are growing, too; must have doubled in size. Still in the little microwave box that the Oaks came in, but now not all bunched together. I'll have to find them a larger box in the next couple of days.

Thursday 30th September, 2010: It's box-cleaning day, and I am still obsessed by the pooh count! For that tells me whether they are eating - and supposedly growing - or not; don't read on if you are squeamish. The Oaks' pooh is as elephant dung compared with that of the Eris, "just as sweet and dry as tobacco dust" as the English poet Edward Thomas wrote during World War One not that long before being killed in action at the Battle of Arras. I don't know what brought this poem to mind but tobacco dust is an apt description of Eri pooh, at the size they are now - still so tiny, but alive. (ET was not of course referring to silkworm pooh when he wrote those words, but likening the state of the soil to tobacco dust - soil fit for sowing.)

Friday 1st October, 2010: the Oaks are feeding like crazy, their bodies swelling and looking formidable. Are they doing well? I know so little about the rearing of silk worms but am reminded for some unaccountable reason of visits to the health clinic with my first child. Each week weighed and figures entered on a chart. 'He's not gained much weight this week,' the nurse would say, or 'well look at his weight increase ...' I would worry, until I twigged that he did not appear to have gained weight if he had poohed his nappy before attending the clinic, and he did if he hadn't, if you see what I mean. Well this first fine son is now approaching 50, senior training captain for a UK airline, and has three thriving children of his own. So why did I worry - and why do I worry now, for all seems to be well with the young larvae.

Saturday 2nd October, 2010: I come down stairs to make our early morning cup of tea; the kitchen is cold; it's grey outside and remains so all day. Endless rain. The Oaks are torpid, nothing like they were yesterday. They seem to have shrunk.

Sunday 3rd October, 2010: I am beginning to wonder what has happened; I cut fresh hawthorn leaves for the Oaks (the tiny Eris are still not exactly active but are scything through privet leaves in a 'wrong-end-of-a-telescope' fashion). I'm not concerned about them; they are younger and their life-cycle is not the same as the Oaks. These seem lifeless, but some hours later, as the sky lightens, there is a little movement. Not much. I read all I can find on the internet but it hardly registers. Fresh food every day is perhaps significant: I've been giving new offerings every other day but the hawthorn is decidedly Autumnal; maybe insufficient food value. I read that as they grow (their size seems to have diminished), they should have twigs placed in a jar of water to keep the leaves succulent, as I did at the start of the week. I read about their skin-moult and wonder when and how often how this occurs, and how - skin splitting and a new larger larva crawling out? Or what?

Monday 4th October, 2010: We have to leave very early for an exhibition. I move the silk worm containers back onto the window cill, hoping the increasing light during the day will enliven the larvae. They appear lifeless and I am ashamed, for has my mismanagement caused their seeming decline, or perhaps their death? On the way home, whilst shopping in the supermarket, I buy a new home for the Oaks, just in case I am wrong about their apparent demise. "Not another container!" says Raymond as I emerge with a lidded bucket, sufficiently deep to hold a jar and upright twigs. "It was only 65 pence," I retaliate, "and it for the silk worms." Which seemed to satisfy him.

a potential new silk-worm home

Back in the house, sunshine is streaming through the kitchen window - they will have been cooked, I think, for sunlight is not good for them. Some were lying on the floor of their box; other hanging shrivelled within the hawthorn leaves. I gently prod one and it sort of twitches; I'm not sure if it is dead or not. Are they ALL dead? I fill a jar with water and insert fresh leaves through holes pierced in a cap of foil (to prevent drowning should some show any sign of life). Maybe they ARE in one of their five skin-shedding stages - in which case they should not be disturbed. I gently lift each twig holding a lifeless caterpillar to lay it into fresh growth in the new tub. And then I notice one lying on its side with flakes of dry skin curling away from it (see pic at the top of this post). There is a faint movement. Maybe they do not shed their skin whole, as snakes do; maybe they are OK after all. The morning will tell.

As for the Eris - well their size remains about the same, but I notice that some have changed colour and are now miniature editions of the magnificently large ones seen at Malvern. I feel happier, and look up the vendor's website only to find that some hybrid larvae are still available; ones more beautiful even after their emergence from the cocoon stage than the baby Eris I am counting on for white silk - but the hybrids will provide me with silk in varying shades. (Sigh as I visualise tiny fabric keepsakes incorporating handmade silk paper.) Maybe I will telephone in the morning; ostensibly to discover at what temperature the larvae should be reared, but also, perhaps, to make another purchase. Three 'incubators' .....


  1. I do not lie I am engrossed in this story, I was reading it glued to every word like a child with a bed time story.I am looking forward to more.Thank you,Carole.

  2. So much of your story reminds me of "Stick Insect Days" when my boys were young. It is fascinating to watch these creatures grow and develop, but quite stressful when they either escape, or threaten to die!

    Do you know how long it will take before the stage when you can make silk?

  3. Carole: it feels a bit like a bedtime story, like the ones I used to make up for our children.

    Dartford Warbler: the 'Oaks' - of they survive - are due to hibernate in about a month and evidently stay in their cocoons all winter. The 'Eris' don't hibernate so I am not sure what will happen to them; hope the privet holds out! Diary is ongoing - but they certainly don;t appreciate the greyness of our Autumn. I try to find out a little more each evening on the internet but these are not the same as mulberry-feeding silk worms and information is difficult to find.

  4. It must be difficult to find the right balance of everything for them and my experience of small things that eat leaves suggests that - like sheep - they have to be greatly persuaded life is worth living! Good luck.

  5. This is just so fascinating, and a bit exciting as we wait to read the next installment. xx

  6. I'm assuming you are aware of what you have to do to get silk?
    Its just you seem to be quite fond of them........