Sunday, March 21, 2010

Reeling Silk with the Piedmont Reel

Last night Jeff delivered the Piedmont Silk Reel that he made for me. It is based off of a woodcut found in a silkworm rearing manual from the late 1500's. He got the measurements from a later document, since the first woodcut didn't come with any instructions on how to build it.

Here is the woodcut of the Piedmont Reel. It's from "The Perfect Vse of Silk-Wormes: and their benefit." by Olivier De Serres, translated by Nicholas Geffe in 1607.

The legs of the reel come off for easier transport, and it goes together really easily. Here is how it looks all set up.

Here you can see the part of the reel where the silk enters the reel. Below the reel, on the ground, there is a pot of hot water containing the cocoons. Between 14 and 20 filaments from cocoons are gathered together into one silk thread. The silk thread goes through a small copper wire spring, called a drop guide, which ensures that if a cocoon jumps up out of the water it will hit the drop guide and drop back into the water.

After the drop guide the silk thread is placed around two rollers. These help to gather all the filaments together and make the thread more cohesive. After the rollers the thread goes through a guide in the casting arm. The casting arm is attached to a wheel which is turned by twine attached to the bobbin crank. The casting arm moves the silk thread from one side of the bobbin to the other so that wet silk is not laid directly on top of other wet silk. Wet silk will stick to itself and then be impossible to remove from the bobbin.

The bobbin is large, which facilitates the silk drying before more silk thread is laid upon thread that are already there.

The best way to see how the reel works is to see it in action. Here is a video from one angle -


And here's a different angle -


This video shows the drop guide in action. Twice in this video you can see a cocoon that gets pulled up out of the pot of water, hits the drop guide, and drops back into the water. Worked perfectly!


Here is the silk once it was reeled onto the bobbin. It took probably 25 minutes to completely reel the silk from 14 cocoons. Each turn of the bobbin collects 60 feet of silk. I didn't count how many turns of the bobbin we did, but this is what the bobbin looked like when we were done. It was fast and easy, and everything worked out great!

The silk felt very dry on the bobbins, so I didn't bother to re-reel onto another bobbin. I still need to do that and I hope that I haven't made a mistake by allowing the silk to stay on the bobbin. I hope it doesn't stick to itself. That wouldn't be good!

It's a fantastic system and it's amazing that they came up with such a great machine in the 1500's. I love my reel. Thanks Jeff! :)

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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Silk Reeling

This is my first attempt at silk reeling, and I used two websites heavily for this setup - Wormspit and Silkewerk. Both of the authors of these pages have tons more experience than I do at this, so I was happy for the help that their pages provided. I used a combination of both techniques and setups to make my own.

The setup consisted of a Crock Pot, a twisted copper wire guide, a metal bobbin, a wooden bobbin, and a simple hand crank silk reel. I used 40 cocoons for this first attempt.

The Crock Pot is used to keep the cocoons hot so the sericin (the glue that holds the silk together to form the cocoon) is soft and the silk can be reeled. The twisted copper wire guide is set up in such a way that there are two loops that look like corkscrews. This is so it's easy to add new filaments to the reeled thread as a cocoon runs out of silk or a filament breaks. If I used a guide that was a solid ring it would be more difficult to add new filaments. This copper corkscrew type of guide is actually from the medieval period, which I like. I used a clamp to affix the guide to the side of the pot. The bottom loop helps keep the cocoons together and the top loop incorporates the filaments into one thread.

Then I needed to set up a bobbin someplace away from the pot so that the silk had some distance to travel between the pot and the reel. This is to help the silk dry before it gets laid down on the bobbin. If the silk is still very wet when it is reeled onto the final bobbin then the sericin will re-glue the silk back onto itself and the thread will never come off of the bobbin. The medieval reeling machines are larger than my reel and had some space between the pot and the reel. I decided I wanted as much space as possible, so I used a metal sewing bobbin on a nail driven through a board. I clamped this to the counter on the other side of the kitchen.

Since I would need to reel and tend to the cocoons at the same time, I set up the reel on the same table as the pot. The reel is just a simple hand crank reel, with no gearing of any kind. It was made by Farthegn (the same guy who made my awesome bug room in the basement) and the side comes off to replace the bobbin. I clamped this to the table and then I was all set to go.

I started off by soaking the cocoons in hot tap water in a mason jar (these jars were recommended because they are tough enough to handle extreme temperature changes, as you'll see in a minute). I put a glass on top that fit inside the jar to hold the cocoons under the water. I left it like this for five minutes.

In the meantime I heated up the Crock Pot and boiled some water. I filled the Crock Pot with the boiling water. Then it was time to empty the hot water from off of the cocoons and to fill the jar with cold water. Then I drained the cold water and put the cocoons in the Crock Pot. This change in temperature is supposed to help make it easier to find the end of the silk filament on the cocoons.

When the cocoons go in the hot water they will bubble and sizzle as they take in the water. The cocoons will fill up with water about 70% of the way. Since they don't completely fill with water they will float. I stirred them with a wooden skewer and poked each one under the water until they stopped bubbling and sizzling.


When the cocoons are done making noise then they are ready to reel. The first thing that has to be done is to find the "one true filament", meaning the one filament that is continuous, unbroken, and that makes up most of the silk in the cocoon. I decided that I wanted to work with around 10 filaments per thread, so I started by just stirring the pot with the skewer and lifting the cocoons out of the pot. Then I starting pulling off silk ends until I found the one filament on each of ten cocoons.


The cocoons have silk on the outside of them that is not part of the "one true filament". When the worm makes it's cocoon it lays down short filaments of silk as a foundation on which to build the cocoon. Before the worm makes the continuous filament the outside of the cocoon is already well started, but this silk on the outside has the short filaments and can't be reeled in one piece. So this silk must be removed in order to find the desired filament.

Once the selected filaments have been threaded through both loops, around the metal bobbin, and wound onto the wooden bobbin then reeling can begin in earnest!


Here you can see the cocoons in the pot jumping around. The jumping ones are being unreeled and as the silk comes off of them they jerk around. The reeling also makes a slight hissing sound, which you can't hear because the metal bobbin and the reel makes such a racket.


Here is the noisy metal bobbin at work.


When a filament would break or a cocoon ran out of filament I had to add another filament to replace it. You want there to be a consistent thickness of thread so you want to make sure you keep the number of filaments as consistent as possible. So I did a lot of pausing to count filaments and make sure I kept between 10 and 12 filaments going. Sometimes I got down to eight, and at times I was as high as 14. But for the most part I think my thread is pretty even.

Here is how I replaced a filament. Experienced reelers can replace a filament without stopping the reel. There was no way I could do this, and when I noticed a broken filament all reeling came the a screeching halt so I could add a new one.


I also had the whole thread break a few times, so I just tied the broken ends together. The knot was so small you couldn't even see it, and I snipped the free ends short so I shouldn't be an issue. At least I hope it won't be. During the reeling process I also had to watch out for stray, slubby silk that would sometimes get sucked up off of a cocoon and get incorporated into the thread. This makes a big ugly mess in the thread so I would have to pick that part out as gently as possible without disturbing the main thread.

As the cocoons are reeled they get thinner and more transparent. You can see some in this picture that are starting to get transparent and thin. They are towards the back of the group of cocoons.

Eventually the cocoon will run out of usable silk and will just drop off of the thread. Here is a picture of a cocoon that is done being reeled, and you can see the pupa inside. It's the dark looking thing in the upper left corner all by itself.

When I got to the point where I couldn't incorporate any more filaments into the thread, and I dropped down to eight threads per filament, I broke the filaments and stopped reeling. In this next picure you see what is left - a bunch of thin cocoons with pupae in them and the waste silk from the outside of the cocoons.

When it was all done, here is what the wooden bobbin looked like.

At this point the silk needed to be reeled off of the wooden bobbin and onto another bobbin to make sure that the silk is dry and is not sticking together. Unfortunately I didn't plan ahead and have extra bobbins on hand so I had to rig something up so I could reel from the bobbin onto a cardboard tube. Here is how that setup went.

I set up the wooden bobbin so it hung on a wooden dowel and would turn easily. I stuffed the cardboard tube with tissue paper and secured it with a rubber band to the reeler. Then I put the thread around the metal bobbin and onto the tube and started re-reeling.


My plan was to re-reel the whole wooden bobbin, but my arm got tired so I stopped for the night. I want to re-reel equal amounts onto two tubes so that I can more easily double the thread later, but it's going to be a guessing game as to when to stop with one tube and start the next. I just hope that when I continue re-reeling tomorrow that I don't find my silk stuck to the bobbin.

Next thing I have to do is double the thread, and I need either a drop spindle or a spinning wheel to make this happen. I have no experience with either, so I need to find one or the other and hope I don't screw it up!

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I reeled!

Today I reeled silk for the first time. I took some photos and video that I'll be posting as soon as I can, but I think it was a success.

I reeled 40 Bombyx mori cocoons. It was pretty easy once I got the hang of incorporating new filaments into the main thread when a cocoon ran out of silk or when a filament broke. That was the only tricky part, besides figuring out the setup.

Pics and videos to come!

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Monday, May 4, 2009

It's over

I'm been resisting posting this because it's sad for me. Out of 11 cocoons I had five males and six females which resulted in no matings. I have one lonely female left alive, and she is just hanging around waiting to die. Somehow the death of the moth is not as sad if they have mated because then it seems like they have fulfilled their purpose in life.

Before most of the moths died I contacted a moth expert from Canada and he made several very good suggestions. I even tried hand-pairing the moths, which is where you hold the moth's butts together and sort of force the issue if they are reluctant. That didn't even work. When none of the suggestions worked he concluded that my moths were probably too closely related to mate. Many species has a built in mechanism that prevents them from mating with siblings or even close cousins. It's good for the gene pool, but not for a small breeder. The B. mori don't have a problem inbreeding, but inbreeding can cause other issues like sudden death of the worms or disease.

So, my project has totally stalled out. For the next few months I will be unable to raise A. pernyi, but I can raise some B. mori. In a few weeks I will order 200 eggs or so and give those another try. I had no issues with raising them last time, so I anticipate much better success. I will try and get more A. pernyi later this summer and try to raise a late summer generation.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Oh deer! We're spinning.

I've been meaning to write about this for awhile, but I just haven't had the chance. Here is a picture of my weeping mulberry.

A few weeks ago it was beautiful, completely leafed and full. Then one night the deer came by our yard and almost stripped it. I'm very glad that I didn't have any B. mori that I had to feed, or I'd have been in trouble, Next year I'm going to get netting on it early to protect the buds from the squirrels, and then I'll leave it on to keep the deer off of the leaves. Honestly, they could have eaten ANY of the other crappy shrubs that we have in our yard. Why pick on my mulberry!!??

In bug news, this morning I saw that I had two spinners. They had just started the beginnings of the cocoons, and by this evening they had completely enclosed themselves in silk.

I have one spinner each in colony A and B, and I think I have one starting in Colony C. I think I may have figured out a spinning structure for them. I took short sections of used oak twigs and tied them together in the middle to form bundles of twigs. I'm hoping the silkworms will crawl upwards out of the leaves to spin in the twigs. It would be much easier to raise these outside!

Something that I haven't mentioned is that the worms seem to prefer leaves from certain trees. I'm not great with identifying oak trees, but I'm pretty sure that the oak leaves I collect out at the farm are pin oaks. The worms will eat the pin oak, but they seem to far prefer the leaves from our church's oak tree out back, and the oak leaves from our neighbor's oak tree which I think are the same species. Compared to the pin oak the leaves are a much darker green and the leaves are not as skinny and spiky as pin oak leaves. I'll have to see if I can figure out what species the preferred trees are, because I think it's interesting that they have favorites within a species.

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Friday, September 5, 2008

Count update

Last night I counted colony B. Out of 273 eggs I have 194 worms. That makes a total of 553 worms from 800 eggs, which is 69%. I lose maybe one worm every other day, but they aren't sick. The dead ones that I find always seem to have had some sort of growth or molting issue. They are small and far behind the others in the colony, or have old shed skins stuck to them that they can't seem to get rid of.

Overall I'm really happy with how they look right now. They are fat, green, and very happy. Since the rearing containers have very good ventilation and I'm cleaning the containers and the room carefully and vigilantly, I seem to have eliminated the sickness issues.

I am concerned about what I'm going to do when they start to spin. When B. mori are ready to spin they turn kind of a translucent color and get sort of bloated and sluggish, so it was easy to watch the colony and separate the spinners from the eaters. These A. pernyi don't seem to change much in appearance. With my last batch the only reason I was able to tell which ones were going to spin is because I could tell that they had done a "gut dump". This is exactly how it sounds - the worm evacuates it's bowels before it spins so that it doesn't have to poop inside the cocoon. Makes sense, huh?

Anyway, it's important not to disturb the spinning worms. They can take a few days to complete the cocoon and if disturbed during the process they can stop spinning and never resume. They will still pupate and develop, just without spinning a complete cocoon. Since I'm after the silk I really don't want incomplete cocoons. Once some of the worms start to spin in one colony I'm going to have to figure out how I can clean the container without bothering the spinners. With my last few worms it was easy to separate them. This time it's going to be impossible.

If I can't clean as thoroughly as I'd like I'll need to lower the temperature and increase the airflow to try and lower my chances for disease. That's the best plan I have so far. I guess I'll have to just see how it goes. In ancient China these worms were raised outside on trees. I can see how that would be much easier to deal with. All the poop just falls to the ground, they find their own food, and they can spin in the leaves when they are ready. Of course they would also have to hope birds don't come by and have a snack. I'm sure those nice fat green worms would make a nice meal.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The UK bugs have arrived

Today I got my shipment of ten cocoons from the UK. I'm a little concerned that they are actually A. pernyi because the cocoons seem so much smaller than the last ones I got that were imported from China (via the UK also). These were raised in the UK so maybe something about their environment effected the size of the cocoons.

To avoid the same issue with the moths emerging and then flopping around on the floor of the emerging chamber in their meconium, I strung up the cocoons on a string inside the chamber. In medieval times they would string B. mori up like this to emerge and I have done that many times, so I hope this will work for A. pernyi too. Ideally you're supposed to hang them head facing up, but I couldn't tell which end was which so I strung them horizontally instead of vertically. I figure this would be better than hanging them upside down. They'll still be able to crawl out of the cocoon and rest on it as their wings expand.

Here they are in the chamber. The two on the far left are the two of mine that spun. The third and last worm died on Saturday. I just think he was too far behind.

While I was stringing them up one of them started to vibrate violently in my hand. It startled me, but gives me hope. It feels like one robust critter in there!

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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Possible problems

I had two more females emerge last night. I got a video of one as it was emerging.



Commentary provided by my four year old daughter, Lily. In case you can't understand her, she said "Lady, don't step in the poop!"

My first female ended up laying about 70 eggs, then decided to recouple with the male. I put her in a bag this morning to lay some eggs, and she was dead this afternoon. I'm sad about that.

One of the other two females was coupled this morning, but was separated this afternoon. I put her in a container and not a bag, and she has laid one egg. I hope she lays some more.

The last female has yet to couple. None of the males seem interested in her, so I put the first male (the one with the crumpled wing who has already mated with the now deceased female) in with her and he's the only male who is all over her.

This project might not be as successful as I once thought.

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Monday, April 21, 2008

Weeping Mulberry problems

Last year my mulberry sapling didn't get any leaves, so we dug it out of the ground and bought a more mature weeping mulberry. Since we saved the stump of the sapling in the container that the weeping mulberry came in, I was able to inspect the remains of the sapling. The whole top looked dead, so I snapped the top off, and here is what the trunk looked like on the inside -

Certainly I had insect damage. I broke off a small piece and took it to the tree farm that I bought the sapling from. The man there confirmed that it was wood borer damage, but which kind of beetle he couldn't say. He said it looked like the tree died first and then the beetle ate the wood, and not the other way around. He said I could treat the weeping mulberry tree if I was worried that it might get infested too, and suggested an insecticide that was systemic and would get absorbed into the whole tree. I was all set to buy it when I suddenly remembered what I had the tree for - to FEED BUGS. Luckily I didn't buy anything or treat the tree at all, and I seem to have buds on it.

Unfortunately, the squirrels find these buds delicious! The little buggers have been up in the tree munching on the buds. I chased them out of the tree numerous times just by yelling out the back door, but when that stopped working I had to actually go out to the tree and holler at them. One time the squirrel jumped over to the next tree, and, hanging about three feet away from me at eye level, had the gall to chatter angrily at me!

I asked for helpful suggestions about keeping the squirrels out of my tree on the silkworm rearing Yahoo group that I belong to (Catherders) and some smart soul told me that I could put bird netting on the tree. I netted up the tree and I haven't seen a squirrel in the tree since, but they could just be getting up there when I'm not looking. However, it looks like the buds are getting bigger and not getting eaten, so I'll order some Bombyx mori eggs soon!

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Thursday, June 7, 2007

Sad tree

Yet another setback in my plans to have a silkworm colony this summer. This is a picture of my mulberry sapling that we planted last spring.

If you look at the trees in the background, you'll notice that they all have leaves. My mulberry does not. I confirmed last night that other mulberries in our area not only have leaves but are also ripening fruit at the moment. So something is sorely amiss with my little tree. It appears to be alive, but I can't really be sure. It's not all dry and brittle, so I'm assuming it's not completely dead. Why didn't it leaf? A mystery.

Since we don't have a lot of room in our yard to just keep planting trees, I've decided that I'm going to dig up this sapling and plant an already established weeping mulberry tree (Morus alba 'chaparral').

(Great photo from - not my tree!)

The weeping mulberries are non-fruiting, which is kind of a bummer since mulberries can be very tasty. However, the weeping mulberries, well, they "weep" and the branches hang down instead of growing up, which is really convenient when trying to harvest leaves for bugs. Regular fruiting mulberry trees can be 30 feet high or more, making it a chore to reach the high branches for leaves or fruit. We had two weeping mulberries at our old house and it was very easy for me to get plenty of leaves for even my biggest colony of B. mori because the M. alba can get really bushy and still stay short. Another bonus is that the M. alba leaves (also known as white mulberry) are supposed to produce the highest quality silk.

Since I'm not sure if my little mulberry is dead, and I feel bad just throwing it away, I've arranged for a new home for it. A kind soul in the Barony with lots of land has agreed to take it and see if he can save it. He said he's always wanted a fruiting mulberry. I hope it grows for him.

Good thing I'm better at raising bugs than I am at growing trees.

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Friday, May 25, 2007

No progress

We are still working on putting the basement back together after our water problems, so there has been no more progress made on the insectary. The things that need doing are -

Install floor - We bought vinyl flooring to lay down in that room. It will make it easy to clean and disinfect. I need to make sure I keep things as clean as possbile in there, because mold or a virus outbreak can wipe yout your colony.

Paint the walls - Just because the walls need it, not for any functional reason. Also because it will look nice.

Install countertop - This will be nice when I'm cleaning out cages or feeding the bugs.

Make emergance chamber - As noted here, I need an emergence chanber for A. pernyi if I get them shipped in. While I don't think it will be hard to make, it still takes time to make it, and I need help to assemble it (since I've never put together a plexiglass box before).

Get leaves - At this point my mulberry tree still doesn't have leaves. It does have some buds, which is a good sign. I'm thinking I'll have a late summer B. mori brood by the time I have leaves and get this insectary finished!

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Sunday, May 13, 2007


The bug room is mostly complete! Last Saturday I stayed upstairs watching my two daughters while my husband's squire, Farthegn did most of the work. Nickolas offered his help, but Farthegn insisted from the beginning that it was basically a one-man project. I'm not sure if this is because he's very adept at this sort of building, or because he brought over all kinds of tools that made the job easier. Here is just a small assortment of the man-toys that he brought over.

After some careful measuring and planning (that's Farthegn) -

a ceiling anchor was put up so that the wall would be secure when the door was opened and closed. Apparently this was more of a pain then it should have been, because the construction of the drop ceiling was odd and there were no studs where there should have been some. Farthegn was finally able to figure out where to nail the anchor.

After installing the ceiling anchor for the walls, a floor anchor was also installed. This wasn't as easy as just nailing into studs because our basement floor is concrete. So Farthegn brought over these blasting cap-type things that use a small ammunition round to drive a nail deep into the concrete. A You Tube movie will be coming shortly.

Here is the first wall going up and being leveled...
and both walls and the door in place..

then drywall and shimming the door...

and then the door in place.

I decided that I wanted the door to swing inwards from the left side, because there is a window on the right wall of the room and I wanted to make it so I could leave the door open and have light coming through the open door into the basement.

Here is what it looks like, finished with molding, from the outside of the room. And I think it looks fantastic! Thanks Farthegn! Next up - putting in the floor.

The room is not very big, but I wanted to keep it small to make it easier to maintain a constant temperature. Because I always plan to feed my bugs actual leaves and not artificial diet, I'll only be using the room for insect rearing in the late spring/early summer months when there are leaves on the the trees. I'm guessing the temperature down there is going to stay right around 60 degrees, so I won't have to heat it all that much. Ideally I'd like to have it between 75 and 80 degrees. Bugs like this best.

Speaking of leaves, my mulberry tree has no leaves on it right now - only buds. My oak tree just leafed out about a week ago, and with the bug room not ready I have not ordered any insects. So I might have a small colony of B. mori (domesticated silkmoth) later this year, and the A. pernyi (Chinese oak silkmoth) might just have to wait until 2008. B. mori you can usually order any time of year from scientific supply companies, as they are a nice insect for kids to watch and raise in classrooms. They ship as eggs (because B. mori overwinter aka "hibernate" as eggs) usually with instructions on how to incubate them so they hatch within a certain time period. Since these are usually from ongoing colonies the shippers can easily send eggs of a certain age and have a pretty good idea when they'll hatch.

A. pernyi is a different story. My biggest fear with the A. pernyi is that they are being shipped from London, and they ship as pupae because they overwinter as pupae. I'll have no idea what kind of conditions they have been exposed to when they arrive, so I won't know exactly when the moths will emerge. This means that I'll have to have a tree with leaves ready just in case they emerge much sooner than expected. However, I'm hoping the shipper doesn't send them too late and I wind up with emerged moths in my package. That would be no good.

I'm excited about getting going with my bugs again. They are so much fun!

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Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Beginning

I love bugs. I think they're really cool. Sure, spiders creep me out a little (but they're technically not bugs). Anyway, just for fun, I did a lot of research into the medieval methods of raising silkworms, and then tried my hand at it. I was able to successfully rear the domesticated silkmoth, Bombyx mori, using medieval methods. My research was published in Tournaments Illuminated, and can be viewed here.

During my research I discovered the widely held belief that the quality of the silk made by the worms was affected by the food that they eat. B. mori eat mulberry leaves and produce a silk that is white, shiny, and very smooth. In contrast, wild tussah moths make a tan silk that is rougher in texture, supposedly due to the tannins in the leaves they eat as they forage in the wild.

It occured to me that at one time B. mori was a wild moth before it's domestication in China in 2000 B.C. I have not found records of how they were domesticated. The entire process of obtaining silk was a closely guarded secret in ancient China, so there may be no written record of their domestication. B. mori must have been chosen for domestication because of the fine silk that it makes. However, evidence exists that the Chinese used other wild silkmoth silk for making garments. One silk used was from the moth Antheraea pernyi, or the chinese oak silkmoth.

Is it possible that the Chinese experimented with domesticating other wild breeds? If so, did they experiment with feeding other species mulberry leaves in an attempt to improve the silk? A. pernyi cocoons are much larger than B. mori, and would yield more silk. This lead me to designing the following experiment - rear colonies of B. mori and A. pernyi and divide each colony into two groups - mulberry leaf diet and oak leaf diet - to compare the silk created by each species with each type of diet.

Due to the fact that A. pernyi are not native to the United States and are considered a pest insect, my first action was to write a research proposal and submit it to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to obtain a permit for the import of A. pernyi cocoons. My research proposal can be read here. I recieved my permit on 10/16/2006.

My next action is to construct an insectary in my basement for the rearing of my worms. I have until May 2007 to get this accomplished, since my cocoons will not be shipped until then. I'll document the progress here. My plan is to have an enclosed room where I can keep the temperature and light/dark cycles as constant as possible.

I'll update again as progress is made. Feel free to contact me at

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