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Kim Moldofsky's Silkworm Project
From Kim's Blog, Hormone-Colored Days

Friday, September 29, 2006
What was I thinking?!?

A petri dish full of eggs with my name on it. Aren't I already harried? Don't I already have enough love in my life? Haven't I spent years cooking and cleaning up after little ones? And yet, here I go again. Waiting for signs of life.

If I had any idea how much work it would be to try to raise silkworms I would not have suggested the project . Every few hours I dash over to the petri dish looking for larvae (thank goodness our house is small). Is our place too cold? Did I wait too long to unpack the eggs? Have I already screwed up?

Once they hatch I not only need to clean up their poop every day (thank goodness their poops are small) but I need to cook for them! Yes, cook! I have to measure out the "dry silkworm diet" (which looks eerily like the green powder on Veggie Booty and even smells a bit like it). Then I have to mix the powder with a measured amount of water, stir, heat in microwave, stir again and heat again. Finally, I have to hurriedly cover the hot mixture with a skin of plastic wrap to avoid mold, let cool to room temperature and then refrigerate. Apparently I will be doing this every few days for the next six weeks. Assuming they hatch, that is.

This had better be cool!

Friday, October 06, 2006
Signs of life in the petri dish!

After several fruitless days of searching for signs of life in the petri dish I began to worry. For example: The scene: bedtime on a crisp fall night. Me: Do you think we should turn on the heat? DH: Are you cold? If you're cold, go ahead and turn it on. Me: *sigh* No, I'm just worried about the silkworm eggs. I think our house may be too cool for them to hatch. The next day I was prepared to call our supplier and insist on replacement eggs because what they sent us were clearly just leftover poppy seeds from someone's lunch when behold! There was movement in the dish! Four tiny worms had hatched out before Splinter left for school. By the time he returned home there were nearly a dozen. Within two days virtually all of the 65 eggs hatched. Our kit was only supposed to contain 25 eggs. I thought of the extras as "insurance," but now that almost of them hatched, I'm a little worried. I've gathered some extra containers for when they outgrow the petri dish, but what to do about food? Will I be able to feed them all? Should I order more Dry Silkworm Diet now, just in case? Can I keep them alive for the next 6 weeks? How much silk do I harvest? (More about the ethical dilemma involved later.) I'm not going to let these answers keep my up at night. In fact, I'm going to bed right now.

Friday, October 27, 2006
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again

"It's a fun science project," my sister-in-law's brother (not to be confused with my husband) told me last summer. So with Smartypants' class reading Project Mulberry and Splinter's class learning about the Silk Road and a science fair looming, silkworms sounded like a great project. If there were a continuum of How Much Care Other Living Things Require with a cactus on the far left and a human infant on the right, silkworms would be on the right, just behind puppies. Every day I clean out their little poops which the instructional catalogue describes thus: At first their excrement looks like small black specks, but as the caterpillars age, their excrement resembles miniature corncobs. Just before the caterpillars start to spin their cocoons, they release all feces. Then there's the food, which I am cooking up just about every other day now. Mix 1/3 cup of water plus three tablespoons Dry Silkworm Diet, microwave for 20 seconds, mix again, microwave again, cover tightly with wrap and allow to cool. It stinks, literally and figuratively. This process is every bit unpleasant as changing a baby's diaper. The silkworms are not cute, nor are they fun to watch. They can't be played with and we have so many that I've had to divide them into several, equally smelly, containers. I can't allow myself to kill them off or leave them out for the birds which is sort of ironic because the only way to get usable silk from the cocoons is to boil them with the little moth still inside (think lobsters). Dare we let the 65 (we ordered 25 eggs, but got a windfall) or so caterpillars make it through their pupa stage, the moths that hatch out cannot eat or drink. They can't really fly either, only flutter around a bit. Like some guys I knew in college, they live only to mate. And unlike those guys, they will die within five days. The successful female will lay 200-500 eggs, which, thankfully, can be refrigerated for up to two years and will make a great Christmas present for your child's favorite science teacher.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006
Fear Factor

My living room is now home to seven stinky containers filled with 2-inch long creepy caterpillars. At this point they are sturdy enough to pick up, so they actually make better pets than, say, my mother's cat. According to our guide book they should start cocooning soon, but they still seem to be in a stage of rapid growth. This means they are eating a lot and therefore pooping a lot, too. I cooked up a double batch of food yesterday which turned out to be a mistake. Despite the increase in volume I didn't add extra time in the microwave and the food came out very goopy. Nutrients are nutrients, I thought, so I glopped some into a container, but it was veritable quicksand for the silkworms because of their suction-cuppy feet. This led to our first casualty. I popped the rest of the food back into the microwave, but you know how when you overcook things they get sort of rubbery? Well, let's hope this doesn't bother the remaining silkworms. I sure hope I, I mean Splinter, gets a gold star at the Science Fair. Kidding aside, I wouldn't recommend this as an independent project for a child under age 10.

Sunday, November 05, 2006
Sophie's Choice, or Playing God to the Silkworms

I did it. This morning I sent about 25% of our silkworm population on a one way trip to the compost heap. I feel bad, having nurtured them since birth and all, but lacked the space and I'm certain the food would have run out before they started cocooning. Our thriving population of roughly 40 caterpillars will hopefully start spinning soon. As they reach they end of their larval stage they are eating and growing rapidly, especially now that I moved them out of the room in which the boys practice piano, trumpet, recorder and violin. (Guess how many sets of earplugs I have?) Apparently they favor quiet surroundings. Yesterday six year-old Splinter dictated his science fair report to me while I typed. Since I did all the work on this project, I was feeling like a bit of a helicopter mom, but he clearly has an excellent understanding of his stated topic- the silkworm life cycle. Phew!

Wednesday, November 15, 2006
Seven Silkworms Spinning

Actually, there are 27, or possibly 37, silkworm larvae busily spinning away upstairs.

Much to my relief, they turned out just as they were supposed to. Let's hope this is an omen of things to come with my children.

I feared the caterpillars were just going to keep eating, growing (and pooping) without reaching maturity. It's not unlike that feeling one gets after a few exhausted weeks of caring for a newborn. But, phew, now I can relax. In fact, the silkworms will never eat again. Ever.

The adult moths that emerge from the cocoons do not eat or drink. They live only to mate. I have one select group of 8 or so cocoons that I plan to let live out their natural life cycle. Hopefully there will be a mating pair among them which may leave us with perhaps hundreds of eggs.

I've already found homes for some of these eggs. And hey, I thought I was too old to be an egg donor! Don't some women make good money for this kind of thing? The eggs can stay for a year or more in the refrigerator in a dormant state which kinda gives me a new angle on the frozen embryo debate.

Anyhoo, the little buggers spin for three days--almost a mile of thread. It's amazing to watch. Beautiful. It almost brings a tear to my eye (as do Hallmark commercials since I became a mother).

Here's Pumpkin spinning his cocoon (just kidding we did not name them. It's generally a bad idea to name animals that one intends to "harvest"). I'd say he or she was about 6-8 hours into the process. The shiny reflection in the upper left corner comes from plastic wrap. In their early lives the caterpillars generally never moved more than a few inches on any given day, but they apparently get a bit bolder and more active as they look for a suitable place to hunker down, and this wild guy decided to hang from his ceiling. Still, that's a better choice than the one that attached itself to our wall.

Friday, November 24, 2006
Harvesting The Silk

Splinter can be a very sensitive boy, so I wasn't sure how he'd react to harvesting the silk from the cocoon, an act which inevitably involves the death of the pupa. They are either killed during the process or in preparation for it (think about that before you buy a silk purse or shirt). I chose the latter method, baking the cocoons in a 200-degree oven for 20 minutes prior to boiling (and while the kids were out of the house). Those puffy white cocoons looked just like a sheet of meringues.

The actual harvest only held his interest for about 3 minutes, leaving me to spend the better part of an hour untangling the cocoons. It's definitely an art I have not mastered. Sometimes I got a very fine, single thread and other times I found myself winding a much thicker thread- something that looks like dental floss. In theory, Splinter is going to embroider a cloth which will be my Chanuka present. Of course, this gift can only be made with a great deal of my help....(Super DH, you want to take this on?)

Hopefully the next, and perhaps final, silkworm report will be about moths hatching out and creating new life in the form of hundreds of eggs. I say hopefully, because I'm not sure I found a dark or quiet enough place for the pupa to morph. We should know by the time December rolls around.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006
A-B-C-D-E-F-G sericulture is not for me! Or is it?

Enough dabbling in sericulture (raising silkworms for those of you who are too lazy to click), I decided to throw out the remaining cocoons. They clearly housed underachieving duds who couldn't hack metamorphosis. Or maybe I didn't follow the instructions very well and left the cocoons in a spot that was A) too noisy, B) too cold, C) too bright or D) all of the above.

But as I prepared to sweep them off to the compost heap something caught my eye. A moth! I made a moth! It was every bit as exciting as when the first egg hatched. For the record, I am not being sarcastic. A small, joyous celebration ensued.

Another moth hatched within a day. One large (female) and one small (male). Moldofsky and Sons Silkworms, Etc. will soon be open for business. Strike that, I've made arrangements to donate the eggs to suitable homes.

But I am counting my eggs before they're fertilized or laid.

Thursday, December 21, 2006
You Will Mot Believe What's Going On In My Bedroom!

It's a moth orgy! Four more moths have hatched. Maybe all those potent pheromones released in such a small enclosed space are confusing the dear things. In recent hours it seems like, well, they say homosexuality exists throughout the animal kingdom and I think I've got some proof now.

If you find things like moth mating habits titillating, check out the funny, informative and eye-opening book, Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation: The Definitive Guide to the Evolutionary Biology of Sex.

If you've never used the words "hilarious" and "evolutionary biology" in the same sentence, it's only because you haven't read this book. Author Olivia Judson uses a Dear Abby-like Q and A format to spotlight a spectrum of enlightening reproductive strategies. If evolutionary biology ain't' your thang, then just read the questions and skip over the answers.

From the jacket: This best-selling guidebook to sex reveals when necrophilia is acceptable, how to have a virgin birth, and when to eat your lover. It also advises on more mundane matters--such as male pregnancy and the joys of a detachable penis.

Oh, wait, did I mention that the book discusses the mating strategies of lower forms of life? (Insert your joke about a past lover here.) Granted, I'm a geeky former zoology major, but how could you not be intrigued?

Thursday, December 21, 2006
Seven Moths A-Mating

We all know birds do it and so do bees. I saw bears do it at the zoo when I was about 10 and the summer I spent as a dolphin trainer I witnessed more cetacean sex than I needed to, but, wow, moths. Whoa. I never even dared to imagine (or should I say fantasize?) the mechanics of moth reproduction.

It just doesn't get more boring than these moths. The male is attracted to the female and finds her due to the powerful pheromones she gives off, but let's face it, how hard could it be to find each other in the 4 X 4-inch box that is their home?

So they meet, they connect and, no really, they connect. They look like conjoined twins attached at their nether-regions. DH took some pictures, but I can't get comfortable with sex pictures from our bedroom posted on the Internet, even if they only feature tiny insects.

I noticed around 7:00 PM that we had our first mating pair and when I checked again the next morning, they were still going at it. Of course by going at it I mean only that they were still coupled. The occasional fluttering of wings assured me they were still alive.

One of six year-old Splinter's stated goals for the school science fair was to "see the moths mate." (He came up with that on his own; I'm not sure what he expected.) So I called him over to take a look and he left the room, unimpressed, about 20 seconds later.

The moths' sole purpose is to mate in order to propagate the species. They are not equipped to eat or drink during this phase of life, so clearly their energy is limited. They gotta take it slow. They will only live a few days, so why not spend most of their time mating? What else have they got to do? I mean, they can't even fly.

It looks like I'll be a silkworm granny any day now.

Monday, December 25, 2006
Circle of Life

The last time I tried to reference The Circle of Life was in a conversation with Smartypants when he was about three years-old. A neighbor's dog had died on the same day a friend of ours had a baby. A death, a birth...the circle of life...get it?

He looked at me with big somber eyes. "Do you mean Simba died, too?"

But with the silkworms, we saw it all. From the poppy seed-like eggs to the three-inch caterpillars to cocoons and then the mating moths and their tiny eggs. The circle of life.

By Kim Moldofsky
Click Here for Kim's Blog

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