Silken Threads from Silver Worms

When you enter Esapolis, the museum of silk worms, insects (and other creepy crawlies), you are first accosted by a pair of glorious large bright green ’praying mantis’ secure in a case with a chameleon and you note that these insects are little threat to humans in our silken threads.

In fact, even the giant scorpion from Thailand in another case opposite, is not as poisonous as its size would imply. Not far away you find display cases holding hundreds of similar glass containers holding all stages of the silk worms cycle, from eggs, through worm to cocoon, the core of our silk threads, and then moth, with particular emphasis on the ’bozzoli’- the raw silk cocoons – in colours from white to a pale gold, and even some pale blue and pink cocoons resulting from failed experiments to dye the silk naturally by dyeing the leaves.

You may wonder why this particular learned institute is in Padua and believe that the history may go back to the founding days of the silk industry in Venice with worms sourced from China. But, we learned from Silvia Cappellozza that after a massive plague starting in France destroyed much of the European silk worm industry in 1850, the French government called on Louis Pasteur to seek a solution. He discovered that the spores of a fungus were transmitted through the breeding cycle and that when the mother was ill also the group of eggs laid by this butterfly was already infected.

At that stage the University of Padua was one of the oldest and most prestigious of Italy and Veneto was one of the busiest industrial centers of silk. In 1871, the King of Italy established a Royal Sericultural Experiment Station in Padua to carry out research on different fields of sericulture and, in particular, to produce healthy eggs of the silk worm for farmers. Through various stages, the old station was converted into Bacologica Research Unit within the CRA-API.

Esapolis is the museum created by the Padua Province, owner of the building, and close to the CRA ‘s Unit where the research team, led by Silvia Cappellozza, tend lovingly their beloved silk worms, collaborating in a living exhibition of larvae, insects, moths and butterflies.

Interestingly, the history of the institute records not just the introduction and cross-breeding of the worms from other regions, but also the discovery of ’artificial silk’ which is what they named ’nylon’. This recalls the analogous comparison of musical strings made from sheep’s gut compared to those made from nylon – where the wonder of the music depends on the use of the natural material. One’s instinct is that natural silk from silk worms provides a superior softer weaving to that of its artificial cousin. True silken threads have no competitor.

The institute houses large rooms filled with trays on each of which this slowly pulsating mass of thousands of worms goes through the ritual slaughter of the mulberry leaves, consuming the verdant fresh leaves (harvested from the 500 or more mulberry trees in the orchard) and converting that beauty into tens of thousands of little black balls of silk worms’ poo.

Each day, as the leaf mass is devoured, a mesh screen is laid on top of the worm mass with fresh leaves and the worms evolve upwards to attack the new serving. The lucky researchers and silk worms-carers can then dispose of the waste at the base of a tree in the orchard.

I seek to know the fate of the millions of moths emanating from the precious cocoons, and learn that for the ‘lucky’ few there is a population of birds (living in the mulberry trees?) whose every day is made more exciting by the release of the latest batch of redundant moths not sacrificed in the processing to make the silken threads.

Sustainability in excellence. You feed me, you nurture me and I am your food.

(This article is reproduced under licence from Energitismo Limited)