Breeding Silkworms

Silkworm Care

I begin with the silk worm, as most of you will start with worms ordered from various suppliers.
When you receive the silk worms they are typically housed in a deli cup or “pod”. As silkworms have a low immune system you must be very careful with cleanliness and moisture. The pods are not ideal for growing the worms without bacteria or mold; therefore I usually move mine over to separate containers. I use the sterilite 6Qt (5.7 L) Tupperware containers that state they are for shoe storage. Any Tupperware that is around that size should do. I then cut out the lid and hot glue some screen to it as shown below. I also cut some gutter guard (http://www.lowes.com/pd_11632-205-85…ard&facetInfo=) and place that inside for the frass to fall through. You can raise it up with bottle caps or some equivalent.

 

Silkworm Container

Silkworm Container, photo by Rachelle/ Pigglett79

Silkworm Container

Silkworm Container, photo by Rachelle/ Pigglett79

Silkworm Container

Silkworm Container, photo by Rachelle/ Pigglett79

 

If the silk worms are kept too humid they may develop mold or bacteria and die, I find that the container noted above works well. I have not had a mass die off to date.

 

Feeding the silk worms can be tricky. If you start them off on mulberry leaves it can be difficult to get them to eat the chow or any alternative later. I tend to use the silkworm chow from mulberry farms and also gutload with greens and carrots. You can feed them non-mulberry food; however they may not survive well without some mulberry in their diet. Chameleon forums member sandrachameleon has found that they did not thrive well unless they were offered at least 25% mulberry based food. If you run out of mulberry chow you can feed them greens and shaved carrots and they will survive temporarily. I have had some who were fed mulberry chow the first half of their life and then fed greens and carrots the second half. They survived until either fed off or cocooned. Those that cocooned did result in healthy worms.

 

Silkworms get their water from the food so it is not necessary to provide any type of water source.

I usually put enough food in the container to last up to 2 days. After about 2 days the remaining food may be dried and need replacing. I also use this opportunity to empty out any frass from the container. You can lift the gutter guard with worms on top and pour out the frass from the container. Be sure you have thoroughly washed your hands prior to touching the containers, worms, or food.

 

Here are some zebra silks just prior to cleaning the container.

Silkworm Food

Silkworm Food, photo by Rachelle/ Pigglett79

 

This is how I raise the silk worms for feeding off to my chameleons. For the next steps and beginning of breeding see part 2 below.

Silkworm Cocooning

Silkworm Cocooning Box

Silkworm Cocooning Box, photo by Rachelle/ Pigglett79

Silkworms Cocooning

Silkworms Cocooning, photo by Rachelle/ Pigglett79

Silkworms Cocooning

Silkworms Cocooning, photo by Rachelle/ Pigglett79

 

Once the silk worms are full grown it is time to think about allowing them to cocoon. At this point I usually separate the ones I plan to keep for breeding and put them in a larger container that is set up for breeding.
For this stage I use a sterilite 56Qt (53L) plastic tub. I have cut holes in the side and top and hot glued screen as it is used for silkworm breeding and other purposes. I place some gutter guard on one side and toilet paper rolls on the other. I put food on the gutter guard side so that the worms can continue to eat until they are ready to cocoon. Most migrate over to the rolls to cocoon, while others will cocoon just about anywhere.

 

Once the silk worm begins spinning you must leave it alone. The worm only has a limited amount of silk and if disturbed during the spinning process it may not recover.

 

You may also find the rare yellow cocoon. Do not be alarmed as this is normal. I have read that all silk worm cocoons are yellow in the wild. It is due to selective breeding that they are now white.

 

Silkworm Cocoons

Silkworm Cocoon, photo by Rachelle/ Pigglett79

    Silkworm Emerging From Cocoon

Silkworm Emerging From Cocoon, photo by Rachelle/ Pigglett79

 

It has been written that moving the cocoons is trouble; however I have moved them every time and not had any issues. I usually wait about a week after they spin cocoons to move them. I gather up all of the cocoons, very carefully, and place them in a new container that is lined with paper towels. I place the cocoons in a circle around the edge of the container and wait for moths to hatch.

 

Moths will hatch within about 2 weeks, give or take. Just prior to coming out you can see one end of the cocoon becoming wet as the moth squirts cocoonase on the silk to dissolve the cocoon. Once the moth has emerged you will see a hole at the end of the cocoon.

 

For moth breeding and egg information see part 3 below.

Silkworm Breeding and Eggs

Silkworm Moth

Silkworm Moth, photo by Rachelle/ Pigglett79

Silkworm Moths Breeding, photo by Rachelle/ Pigglett79

Silkworm Moths Breeding, photo by Rachelle/ Pigglett79

 

Now that you have silk worm moths you may wonder what to do next.

 

The moths cannot fly and do not eat. They have been bred for silk for thousands of years and the wings have become vestigial. The males tend to me much smaller than the females, but with larger wings. The females will be much larger, filled with eggs, and have much smaller wings. The females will scent (secrete a pheromone) which drives the males crazy. You will notice dark liquid on the paper which is part of their secretions when excited.

 

Males can mate multiple times, whereas females mate once. Once a male and female connect they may stay connected for up to 24 hours. You can safely separate them after a few hours by gently turning them like removing a key from a lock. You must be careful not to damage the female’s ovipositor as this will affect her ability to lay eggs. Once I separate them (or if you are afraid to separate them just do this to the mating couple) I put a toilet paper roll (you can also use a plastic cup) over her to control the area of egg laying. This will result in a nice circle of eggs that can be cut out later.

 

When the eggs are first laid they will be yellow. After several days they will change to tan and then eventually gray. If they do not change color, then they are infertile.

 

At this point you can leave them at room temp or higher to hatch, or opt to store them for later use. If you would like to store them for later use, you can cut out the egg circles and place them in zip lock bags. I then date the bags and place them in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator until I am ready to hatch them. They will save in the refrigerator for several months.

 

Silkworm Moth Laying Eggs

Silkworm Moth Laying Eggs, photo by Rachelle/ Pigglett79

 

Here is a female with some eggs that were not controlled with toilet paper rolls.

 

When I am ready to hatch the eggs, I place them into a petri dish.

 

Silkworm Eggs

Silkworm Eggs, photo by Rachelle/ Pigglett79

 

I keep the petri dish on top of some moist paper towels that I mist daily. The eggs need some moisture, but not enough to cause mold or to come in direct contact with the eggs. I also keep them in my bug room which is usually around 80-85 degrees. Unfortunately I cannot give a good estimate on hatching time as mine have been all over the place. Some hatch within a couple weeks and others in greater than 2 months. Update: I now use an incubator set to 85 degrees and my eggs are hatching within a week or so.

 

When the eggs hatch you will see tiny black worms, at this time you should put small amounts of food in the container with them. The best results seem to be with using a cheese grater and grating a small amount of food over them. You can remove any dried out food if the worms are not on it.

 

Baby Silkworms

Baby Silkworms, photo by Rachelle/ Pigglett79

 

As the worms grow they will migrate over to the food which is also a good way to get them where you want them. If you need them to move to another spot so that you can clean the other, just put the food where you want them and they will move. It will take a couple weeks for the worms to grow to a decent size, depending on food availability and room temperature. If you would like to slow their growth down, you can deprive them of food. I have read that they can go up to a week without food, although I have not withdrawn food for more than 2 days at a time.

 

I do have more pictures of the worms growing up, however I have hit my quota for this blog.

 

From here you basically just feed them and clean them and once they grow in to their second instar, I move them to the tupperware and start over with part 1.

 

So there you have it….my silk worm rearing and breeding methods. I hope this is helpful to you and if you have any additional questions feel free to let me know. Thanks

 

Info Submitted by: Rachelle/ Pigglett79

8 comments to Breeding Silkworms

  • Falkor

    Hi,
    Thanks for this article… How difficult are they (Really) to breed…? I have just successfully bred my first few Superworms (I didn’t think it was a success, until I sifted the substrate)… and planning to breed Hornworms (ordered eggs just hatched)… But, how difficult will silkworms be?

    • Billy

      Hey Falkor,

      Silkworms are very easy to breed. In my opinion, they are easier than hornworms. The best part about breeding silkworms is that the silkworms moths do not fly, eat, or drink, so you won’t have to worry about escapes or any hard work. I bred them successfully on my first try with very little effort.

  • Robert Kochis

    Billy,
    Will a silkworm stink like the hornwomrs? As you stated “not a pleasant earthy smell”. I live in a one bedroom apartment so space and stink need to be limited.
    Thank you

    • Billy

      Hey Robert,
      You will not notice the smell unless you stick your nose inside the container. If you breed on a large scale, then the smell might be a problem.

  • Jennifer Sweat

    Is it really possible to raise silkworms in Florida?

  • Nicolle

    What’s the best way to store the eggs until they are ready to hatch

    • Billy

      Hello Nicole,
      They will hatch in a few days so you could leave them in a container with a lid that has small holes in it for ventilation. But make sure to check daily for newborns as you will need to give them food immediately.

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