Creativity with Insects - Silk

Let's go back to ancient China for a moment. Legend has it that in 2,640 B.C., the Chinese empress Si-Ling-Chi pulled on one end of a silkworm cocoon in a mulberry tree to find that it was on continuous thread. She spun multiple threads to form a single sturdy thread and created the first wearable art for the emperor. The emperor then is said to have created the methods of rearing these silkworms. The secrets of the silk remained in China for many years, but eventually the people of Japan and India learned of the silkworm's productions, and silk became a fashionable item worn by the elite.

Today, the domesticated silkworm moth (Bombyx mori) is completely lab reared for the silk and for research. The journey this species has taken from being a naturally occurring species (the wild silk moth Bombyx mandarinato) through inbreeding and isolation is one of evolutionary importance.

The wild non-domesticated species functions like any other insect; hatching and going through the stages of becoming an adult, mating, and dying. In the wild, the males fly to the females, attracted by the pheromones, or chemical cues, which trigger the males to fly towards the female source. The curious case of Bombyx mori is that it is completely dependent on human intervention for mating and survival. B. mori males are unable to fly, so artificial insemination is needed. Even the caterpillars (the larvae) of B. mori have lost their pigmentation from being lab reared and inbred over centuries. The caterpillars are white, which would make them easy targets for predators to spot if they were left in the wild.

If it weren't for this evolutionary divergence and domestication of a species subset, human culture may not know much about the silkworm, or even possibly insect physiology. B. mori has been used extensively for biological research and understanding how insects function. This has ultimately lead to pinpointing control efforts for many invasive and destructive insect species around the world.

So the next time you see an artist using silk for their fashion or home decor, or spray an insecticide (properly) in your garden, you have B. mori to thank.

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