09 November 2013

Meet Bombyx Mori at the Silkworm Farm

The beautiful farmland of Gunma Prefecture.

Mulberry bushes, pruned for easy leaf harvest.

During our 2012 textile study tour of Japan we visited one of the last remaining silkworm farms in Gunma Prefecture.  China has supplanted Japan as the world's leading silk filament supplier, but a remnant of the industry remains.

Our group, at the entrance to the silkworm barn.

Silkworm barn, with removable tarps.

Silk is a natural protein fiber, produced by the silkworm, Bombyx mori, as it constructs its cocoon and enters the metamorphic part of its life cycle.

Silkworm barn, interior.

Thousand of silkworms live in this barn, in mesh hammocks slung from a simple framework.  The caterpillars munch voraciously on mulberry leaves, their exclusive food source, so the farm must maintain a ready supply of mulberry leaves during the lifecycle of the silkworms.

Fans and removeable side tarps control air circulation, as the critters are sensitive to changes in heat and humidity.

Silkworms and mulberry leaves in hammocks.

Once the silkworms have spun their cocoons, the small pupae are placed in wooden racks for transport. At some point the cocoons are boiled or steamed; this kills the emergent moth inside which would otherwise create holes to escape from its cocoon. The holes mean the silk filament would be discontinuous - it would unspool in pieces, rather than in one long continuous filament. Economically, the continuous filament is much, much more valuable.

A few moths do escape, and their offspring inhabit the rafters of the barn, as seen below.

The cocoons of escapees.

We were not allowed into the barn, and rightly so, as a herd of tourists, however well-intentioned, might introduce pathogens or other problems. However, the farmer and our guide brought out a large plastic scoop full of busy silkworms and we all got a good look.

We  admire the silkworms.

Farmer bows in appreciation of Gale's gift.

In the image above, the farmer bows his capped head in appreciation of a small token from an appreciative tour participant.  The farmer wears split toe boots to accommodate tabi socks. To the right of the farmer stands his father and, at the far right and holding his backpack, is our helpful and informative guide.

Last look at the farm.