The silkworm, from which all natural silk is obtained from, is actually the larvae of the moth Bombyx mori. The moth lays her eggs on mulberry leaves and after a certain period, the eggs hatch and out emerges the larvae. Silk or the production of it, was one of the best-kept secrets until a Chinese monk smuggled a silkworm into India and today, India happens to be one of the largest centers for the production of silk fabrics, of various hues and sizes. The silkworm undergoes four distinct cycles of development until finally, it emerges out as a moth.
- Egg: The silkworm begins life as an egg; usually the silkworm moth lays anywhere from 20 to 30 eggs but that depends on various external factors as well. The eggs are usually laid on the underside of large leaves, where the moth utilizes its own saliva and sticks them into place. The moth does this to protect them from various predators including ants and they hatch depending on the season and until then, they remain dormant.
- Larvae/silkworm: Once the eggs hatch and the caterpillar or silkworm emerges, it starts munching several times its own weight in leaves. The silkworm now has to grow rapidly and to fuel their growth, they have to consume a large number of leaves. It is in this larval stage, that the caterpillar or silkworm sheds its outer skin four times to keep up with its increasing size, which is termed as ‘instars’ by biologists. Eventually, it reaches a stage, where it stops growing and it is at this point that the caterpillar consumes about 85% of its own weight in mulberry leaves. Incidentally, silkworms only consume mulberry leaves.
- Pupae: It is around this stage, that the silkworm decides to become dormant but in actuality, it is fast spinning a cocoon of web made from strong silk to protect itself from various predators. The silkworm spins slender threads of silk at rapid speed and is constructed from a single strand of silk which can often be 1.5 km long. That should give you the idea of the amount of work that the caterpillar puts into developing the cocoon. The color of the silkworm cocoon can differ from milky white to creamy yellow, but they soon harden to a tough exterior where the silkworm undergoes one final instar with a brown chitin. Soon the stage is all set for the silkworm to move from its pupae stage to the next stage of development.
- Imago: This is the stage where the adult moth tears its way out of the cocoon and emerges with its wings still wet and soft. It rests for a while before it takes off to explore its immediate surroundings and soon it becomes ready to mate. And once it has mated, it will lay eggs and die a few days after that and the life cycle, which incidentally takes about 5 to 7 weeks from start to finish will repeat all over again.
It should be pointed out that the silkworm is often terminated at the pupae stage so that the raw silk can be harvested; this is the only viable way to obtain raw silk.
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