Friday, April 20, 2007

My babies--all 70 of them

I've been taking up knitting lately. All my life I've been a fidget, fiddling with my hair, skin, clothing, any available physical object. It's as though a corner of my mind is a petulant child and needs to be occupied in some meaningless task. Knitting works so much better than the other options!

Well, the other day I went into a high-end knitting shop and drooled over the silk fibers there. Way beyond my budget. So of course, as always, I wondered, what if I produce my own silk?

Here's the result: some 70 worms, lovingly hatched from a petri dish full of eggs that I ordered from a biological supply house in Sacramento.

These worms are called the "tiny masters" by a silkworm cultivator who documents his worms extensively on his Web site.

They hatch out with a voracious appetite, and spend the next three or four weeks increasing their size by hundreds of percent, from the size of a small ant to a robust 2-1/2-inch white worm. My job is to feed them mulberry leaves, an easy task I thought, since I have a mulberry tree in my back yard. In the last week they were eating five times a day, and it was a race between the growth of ravenous worms and the finite number of leaves on my tree.

About that time, I alleviated the situation inadvertently by steaming about a third of my worms. Yes, I put them over a pan of hot water on the stove to warm them up, and didn't realize I hadn't turned the fire off under the pan. Worms like a humid 75-85 degree atmosphere, somewhat cooler than over a pan of simmering water.

The rest of the worms have performed magnificently, yielding the following harvest of 52 pure silk cocoons:

Will I be knitting a sweater with the silk from my worms? Will I go into the silk business?

Not likely. I have approximately one-fifth of an ounce of silk here. To raise 4 ounces would require a thousand cocoons and the output of 20 or so mulberry trees. I don't necessarily have better things to do with my time than tottering at the top of a shaky stepladder grabbing leaves with a bent coathanger or better things to do with my money than keeping an area warmed to a tropical temperature, but I can sure find more interesting ways to waste my time.

Still, the worms were cute, performed like professionals and provided me with many interesting moments.

UPDATE: Mass murder!

Yes, I'm afraid so. What would I do with the 7500 or so silkworm eggs that could be the result of letting the worms complete their life cycle? So 50 or so cocoons underwent the Final Solution, courtesy of my toaster oven, this morning. Hopefully, it was quick, and as pupae, they weren't really conscious enough to know what was going on. When I get around to figuring out how to deal with the silk, I'll let you know how it goes.


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