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Silkworms Spin Cocoons That Spell Their Own Doom | Deep Look

Silkworms Spin Cocoons That Spell Their Own Doom | Deep Look

Those precious silk garments in your closet were made by the caterpillar of a fuzzy white moth – thousands of them. Silkworms spin a cocoon with a single strand of silk up to ten city blocks long. Humans have bred these insects into weaving machines that can no longer survive in the wild.

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The sumptuous silk in your satiny sheets and glamorous gowns comes from humble beginnings – a caterpillar of the domesticated silk moth. For almost five thousand years, people have raised silkworms for their unique, shimmering material. In just a few days, these caterpillars produce one fine thread of silk one kilometer long, and intricately weave it into their cocoons.

For most silkworms in captivity, this is where their journey ends. To preserve the integrity of the continuous silk thread in each cocoon, silk farmers kill the pupa inside the chrysalis by boiling, steam, or sun. Then the strands are loosened in hot water and unwound by hand using specialized spinners and silk harvesting tools. This raw silk is then gathered onto large spools and refined into commercially valuable threads. It can take up to 2000 silkworms to make one silk dress.

Today, the silk industry is valued at more than $10 billion globally, but it is more than just a luxury item. Silk is pound-for-pound stronger than steel, and it is now used in medicine to heal bones and tendons. Our five thousand year love affair with this extraordinary material continues to hold silkworms captive — until we learn to spin silk better than they can.


– What other insects produce silk?

Animal-produced silk is actually quite common in the natural world. Spiders (of course), fleas, webspinners, caddisflies and even some ants and bees make silk. But only the silk made by the caterpillar of the domestic silk moth is widely cultivated by humans.

– Are silkworms edible?

Yes! Silkworms are enjoyed as a nutritious snack in many countries, including Thailand, Vietnam, China and Madagascar.

– Where do wild silk moths live?

Domestic silk moths (Bombyx mori) can’t survive in the wild without help from humans, but their cousins – the wild silk moth (Bombyx mandarina) can be found in Asia, in countries like China, Korea and Japan.

—+ More great Deep Look episodes:

The Curious Webspinner Insect Knits a Cozy Home

Is a Spider’s Web a Part of Its Mind?

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