Monday, November 10, 2008

Cleaning up

I have to admit, I was really relieved when I was done feeding all those bugs. It was a lot of work! So when the last worm had spun I never cleaned up my insectary, or did anything with the cocoons other than put the selected few for next year in the chiller, and shove the others in the freezer. Today was the day that I finally cleaned everything up and started to prepare the cocoons for use.

First I took the cocoons out the the freezer and put them in the oven at 170 degrees for one hour. It ended up being over and hour because I didn't hear the timer. Oops. It doesn't look like the cocoons are damaged at all, so no worries. My goal here is to dry the pupae inside the cocoon so that the silk won't mold or smell bad. The cocoons have a definate smell, and I wish I could describe it. It's kind of musty and a little sweet at the same time. It's not really gross, but I'm not sure if I'd call it pleasant either. But if the pupae rots on the inside of the cocoon I'm sure it would smell much worse, so dried they will be.

The cocoons that I'm saving for next year went into my wine chiller set at 52 degrees. Since A. pernyi is a tropical species they could possibly end up sterile if they get too cold overwintering in the fridge. So I have this wine chiller that I can set at 52 degrees which should induce diapause and keep them safe until next spring. I didn't want to seal them in a container, but I also wanted to keep them from drying out, so I put them in plastic jars with cotton stuffed in the top. I've been keeping the cotton damp so that there is some humidity but hopefully not enough to mold the cocoons.

The next order of business was to pull everything out of the insectary and give it a thorough cleaning. All the equipment had to be bleached and set out to dry. It will be nice to have everything ready to go in the spring when I pull the cocoons out of the chiller.

While I wait out the long winter I will be reading books and getting more documentation on wild silkmoths if I can find any. I will also be attempting to reel some silk for the first time on my own. I took one class on it, but wasn't very successful. I now have much better information on how reeling should be accomplished, so I'll give it a try at some point over this winter.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Winding down

Things are coming to an end with my bug colonies. Colony A is all finished, and the return was pretty poor. I got eleven cocoons, and most of them are pretty poor quality. The walls of the cocoons are thin, so there is not much silk in them.

Notice that at the bottom of the picture there are pupae that did not spin cocoons. These bugs went through pupation without spinning. I got some of these in every colony. I also got some really neat pictures of the worms pupating outside of a cocoon.

To begin pupation,the worm gets short and fat and just lays on it's side, not eating or crawling. If poked they will do a little wiggle with their bottoms.

A few days later they will wiggle fiercely to get out of the worm skin. If they are in the cocoon this sounds very much like some animal caught in a paper bag trying to scratch it's way out. Right after the skin is shed the pupa looks very green and is soft. If you look closely at the head (the most green part) you can see the antennae and the wings closed around the body.

It only takes a few hours for the pupa to start turning brown and hardening on the outside. Here is a picture of the skin on the bottom, a green pupa in the middle, and a browned pupa on the top.

Like Colony A, Colony B is also finished and has no worms left. I got more cocoons out of it but not as many as I'd hoped. Seventeen complete cocoons and one cocoon that looks like a bowl. The worm in that one didn't complete the cocoon. The green worms on the bottom are not going to spin, and will just pupate with no cocoons.

Colony C, however, still has worms spinning. There are only about five worms left and at least one of them is fixing to spin right now. The was my best colony, and has gotten me 62 cocoons so far. Most are of a nice quality too.

I saved five cocoons from Colony B, and seven from Colony C. I kept each colony separate and put each in a wide mouthed container and stuffed the opening with cotton batting. I need to make sure that they get air, but don't dry out. Then I put the container in my cooling chamber at 52 degrees. That should be cool enough to activate diapause (overwintering) but not cold enough to make them sterile.

The rest of the cocoons and pupae went into the freezer. I'll just throw the pupae with no cocoons away, but the cocoons I'll take out at a later date and dry them.

I'm certain that the early disease had a large impact on the quality and number of cocoons that I got from each colony. Colony A was hardest hit and I got the most death and least cocoons from it. Colony C was the least effected, and it shows. Next time I will not try and raise that many worms at once. I'll start with one or two hundred eggs at the most. That should make it easier not to overcrowd them. It will also make it easier for me to get enough food for them. There were days where the back of my car was stuffed with large leafy branches that had to be put in buckets of water so they would stay fresh over night for the morning feeding. I'm really glad that's over!

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Infirmary

My worms are eating like crazy, and getting really big.

I still have fatalities in all Colonies, but they are mostly in Colony A. They seem to be bugs that haven't been through the final molt and are not showing signs of ever getting there. They are small and don't evacuate their bowels or vomit before they die. They just get stiff and die. It's nice that they don't spew bodily fluids or liquefy, because that tells me that it's probably not a nasty virus or bacterium. However, since I'm getting mostly deaths in Colony A and that's the colony that had the illness, I'm assuming the worms that survived were affected in some way. Most of them are doing just fine, so all I can do at this point is feed them well and keep them clean.

The deaths that I've had in the other two colonies seem to be worms that haven't molted completely, or are having issues molting. You can see on both of these guys the flaky skin and yellowish color. The looked bad enough that I pulled them out into The Infirmary to get them away from the other bugs in case they died.

Compare them to this nice healthy worm, whose skin is smooth and a nice green color.

The Infirmary is just another container that I have set up to put the sick looking bugs in. I put the sick worms on a paper towel just in case they evacuate their bowels or vomit before they die. Most of them seem to die, but at least they do it away from everyone else. I've had five or six that seem to recover and I've been able to put them back with the others when I'm sure they are doing well.

Right now I've got some interesting worms in The Infirmary. This one seems to have a rectal prolapse. I had one other worm do this and the next day it was just fine, so we'll see what happens to this little guy.

This one has a black foot. He seems to be eating and getting around okay, but I want to keep him segregated. I need to take some time and look up what this illness might be.

This poor worm has a rectal prolapse and a black foot! He's a big fella too.

Should be one more week until I get spinners! I can't wait!

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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, September 2, 2008

I must have been crazy...

.. to think that I could take care of this many bugs. They are eating like cows! Here is a picture of what they eat in a 24 hour period.

The bad news is that bringing all those oak leaves and branches into my house means that I'm also bringing in all sort of other little critters. There are assorted spiders, mites, other caterpillars, and the occasional juvenile praying mantis. I've been trying to catch them all and let them go, but the spiders mostly get away from me. Anything little that crawls off into the insectary seems to get getting caught by the spiders who have set up shop in the corners of the room. I'll have to do a thorough cleaning once all the spinning is completed.

The good news is that I have the sickness under control and have not had any more deaths. Colony A is beginning the last molt, and then the eating should bump up another notch. It's going to be a very busy next three weeks.

I did a bug count of colonies A and C tonight, and here how the numbers worked out -

Colony A - 259 eggs, 169 worms (43 died from the illness)
Colony C - 268 eggs, 190 worms.

I'll do a count on colony B tomorrow or the next day. Assuming the numbers are close I should have 500+ worms.

Man, that really makes me sound nuts. I will never again raise this many bugs at once. It's just too much!

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Damage control

Last night I went through and divided Colony A into three groups, because I found five more dead worms. The three groups are -

- actively eating/healthy looking
- molting, stationary, and questionable health
- probably ill

I put the healthy ones in a new big container that has lots of airflow. This morning it looks like most of the molting and sick worms are okay. In fact some from both groups had molted and were eating just fine. However, I found four more dead worms in the healthy group. They looked like they had just died and weren't spewing liquid, so I hope I got them out in time.

I'll have two more big airy containers by the end of this evening so I can split my other two colonies. I need to cut down the crowding and increase the airflow on all my colonies or I'm going to run into the same issues.

So far, the death toll stands at 21.

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Sunday, August 3, 2008

Off to War

I'm leaving for Pennsic tomorrow, and my eggs are all still at 60 degrees. I've decided to take them out tomorrow morning before I leave for work. I'm not going to heat my insectary up to 80 degrees yet. I'm just going to leave it at ambient temperature of about 70 degrees. Hopefully this will slow them down a little too and they won't hatch until I get back.

Just in case I do get some hatching I'm going to put leaves in with the eggs. I'm going to put the branches in test tubes with water in them so that the leaves will stay fresh and won't dry out. I'll have someone come in and check to see that the tubes still have water in them, so I think that should cover all the bases. I'm still planning on keeping the pairings separate.

Hopefully when I get back I'll have eggs that will hatch in short order.

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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Cooling it

Things are moving right along with my silkworm breeding.

Right now I have 800 eggs from three pairings. My goal is to keep them separate so when I choose my cocoons to overwinter I can choose five or six from each brood. That way I can control inbreeding to some degree. I can't eliminate it, but I can try and minimize it as best I can.

Yesterday I removed the males and females from the paper bags and put them in a container. When I opened the first bag a lot of wing scales came billowing out, so I quickly closed the bag and got the vacuum cleaner. I turned it on and kept the nozzle very close to but not in the bag so that I could open the bag and not have scales floating all over in the air. The wing scales from some moths are very irritating to the lungs, and I don't need to have breathing issues because of this project.

I made sure to keep the moths that had already bred separate from the ones that have emerged but not bred, just in case I get any more emerging. The moths are all pretty beaten up from trying to fly around in the bags and containers. This is the best looking one and big hunks of wing are missing.

After I moved the moths I cut the paper bags up so that the clumps of eggs were on small sheets of paper. Then I arranged the paper strips in the bottom of petri dishes, labeling the broods A, B, and C. I had read that you should mist the eggs every third day, so I misted them yesterday.

However, I have a problem. The eggs are due to hatch while I'm at Pennsic. I have a theory that I should be able to cool the eggs to slow down their development so that they don't hatch until I get back. At the current temperature of 80 degrees in my insectary the last batch of eggs hatched in ten days. That would put these eggs hatching on August 5th. I leave on the 4th and get back on the 9th. I need these eggs to stay eggs for five more days.

When I heard that the cocoons should not overwinter in the fridge, I went searching for a small used fridge that I could just turn up high and get it around 55 degrees. But when I was searching online I found that they make small, inexpensive wine chillers that have a digital temperature controls that you can set between 65 and 40 degrees. The bad thing about these is they don't get colder than 20 degrees below the room temp. This is not an issue for me since I don't want it much colder than that. I was able to find a small chiller on sale for $60 so I grabbed it for overwintering cocoons. However, I'll be using it much sooner than that. As in right now!

I called the USDA entomologist to confirm that I could accomplish delaying egg hatching by cooling the eggs. He agreed that it would work, and said 60 degrees should do it. So right now my eggs are in petri dishes in the chiller at 60 degrees. I think I'm going to modify the shelves so I can put the dishes on the shelf and put a pan of water on the floor of the unit. There is a fan in the chiller and I'm afraid that the eggs will dry out if I don't keep the humidity up.

I'm trying to decide what to do from here. I just need them to be delayed five days. So, do I leave them in the chiller until I get back, or leave them in for another five days and then take them out before I leave and risk them hatching while I'm gone?

I'll probably take them out before I go and leave them some branches to eat if they hatch. I'm really hoping they don't hatch until I get back. Silly worms, you have bad timing! At least they are in a stage that I can control. If they had all hatched last week I'd be in a pickle since I can't take them to Pennsic and I can't leave them alone for five days.

So far no other moths have emerged, including my two from the first generation this spring. If I have no more moths tomorrow I'm going to stick them in the freezer. I can't have them emerging with nobody to take care of them. However, I really don't think I need any more eggs. 800 will be plenty!

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Starting the A. pernyi cocoons

My Chinese Emperor Oak tree has decent sized buds on it, so I took the A. pernyi cocoons out of the fridge last night and put them in my bug room. They are in the emergence chamber, ready to go.

I'm going to keep the room at around 78 degrees, and I got the idea from wild silkmoth guru Bill Oehlke's site to give them 16 hours of daylight. He states that a similar moth, A. polyphemus, will not go into diapause (winter hibernation) in the cocoon state if fourth instar caterpillars (the stage before spinning the cocoon) are exposed to 16 hours of light, but will go into diapause if they are exposed to 12 hours of light. This makes perfect sense, because the shortening days of fall would tell the larva that winter is coming so it would be a good time to shut down for the winter. However, if there's enough light the larva will be able to emerge without a cold snap and will be able to have more than one brood in the summer season. I'm hoping for at least two broods, but I'm getting such a late start because of the weather here in Ohio that I might not be able to squeeze in three.

I'll be checking the cocoons daily (probably more than once a day) for any activity. I'll need to get them out of the emergence chamber and into the breeding chamber as soon as they emerge so I can check for parasitoid wasps. My great emergence chamber should make this easy!

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Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Finally an update

With some help from my hubby, the bug room is almost finished. We painted everything and put the floor in. Now all we need to do is seal up the edges, mop the floor, and move bugs in.

Here are some pics of the room. It's small so I can't take photos inside the room, and if I stand outside you don't get to see much. But you can get the idea. I'm going to set up a table or two for right now, but eventually the plan is to install a counter top for work space and some shelving. I'll get the light on a timer, set up a small oil filled heater, and I'll be in business!

Also, here is the emergence chamber that our buddy Farthegn built for me. It's white on the inside and clear on the top so that I can easily spot and kill any parasitoid wasps that happen to be hitching a ride inside my cocoons. The front has a round opening that I'll put a double tube of panty hose over, which will give me a sleeve to allow me access to the inside of the chamber without opening a large hole through which the wasps or moths can escape. This is something that was a requirement for getting my USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) permit for having wild silkmoths and worms that are not native to the USA.

And, today those wild silkmoth cocoons arrived!

Those are 10 cocoons of Antheraea pernyi, the Chinese Oak Silkmoth. Right now we don't have leaves on the trees and it certainly doesn't look like spring yet around here, so I put the cocoons in the fridge. I'm nervous because I don't know how they were treated before they got here, and I'm hoping that they didn't get too warm and start developing. I really don't need them emerging in their box while they are still in my fridge. Or dying.

I'm going to wait until my oak tree gets some nicely developing buds before I take them out to develop. I hope I get the timing right or I might mess this up. I also hope I can get a breeding pair this time around. I only see one really big one, so I'm hoping I don't get one female and nine males. That would not work well. I'll update again as things progress!

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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, April 7, 2007

Before the insect room construction

After a slight basement water problem (go here for the whole story, complete with photos!), we're finally ready to start construction on the insect room. Here is how it looks right now -

It's a relatively small area, but my plan is to put up a wall with a door to make the area into a square. Then I can add a small heater and hopefully keep the temperature constant. A new floor, and nice paint job, and then I'm all set for bugs.

Well, almost. The bugs still need to survive the trip from London. Last time I had one moth emerge from his cocoon during transit. Since he was constricted in the packaging his wings weren't able to expand within the first few hours of emergence, so they never fully opened and he never bred a female. Hopefully I'll have better luck this year.

I also need to construct an emergence chamber for the moths. As per the terms of my permit to import these special Chinese moths, USDA requires that foreign moths emerge in a chamber that will easily contain parasitoid wasps so the wasps can be captured and killed. These wasps hitch a ride with the cocoons and emerge with the moths. Usually these wasps prey on agricultural pests, but if the wasps were to get out into the wild they could possibly prey on beneficial butterflies or other species of moths. So I'll be required to kill any parasitic wasps that I find. I'll take pictures and post them here if I do find any.

More updates as we make progress.