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Did you know you can grow your own silk from your own silkworms? Well you can! Add silkworms to your backyard farm as a source of income, a child’s science project, or anything in between. Silkworms eat mulberry leaves, and they do not leave their food source. They can be reared in open boxes with your own homegrown leaves if you have enough mulberry trees.
Why Raise Silkworms?
In commercial silk operations frequently the worms are killed. Often the worms are fed hormones and growth hormones which are then present within the finished silk. Also often times silk is imported from out of the country. If you are trying to live a more sustainable, local lifestyle producing your own fibers is an admirable goal. How fun it would be to do your own knitting or crocheting from fibers you grew and produced yourself! Silk is also currently endangered, so even keeping them as a hobby can help preserve the species.
Peace silk is produced by letting the moths naturally emerge from their cocoons, breed, and lay eggs, unlike some commercial silk, where the silkworms are killed before they emerge. Instead, they are allowed to emerge from their cocoons, mate, and die happy. The alternative is to bake the pupa before they emerge from the cocoons. Then instead of spinning the fibers you can unreel them in one long strand. If you choose the later method, the cooked pupa could be fed to your chickens as a homegrown snack.
Raising silkworms could also provide a bit of income. You could sell the eggs to other potential raisers, or as an education tool to classrooms and homeschoolers. You could raise the worms to be used as a high protein reptile or chicken feed. The silk could be sold raw, or even made into homemade items for purchase. Operating expenses should be low if you are raising all your own mulberry plants.
How To Get Started
The first step in caring for silkworms is to make sure you have a feed source. Silkworms eat mulberry leaves, and only mulberry leaves. If you have a mulberry tree or a couple of bushes you should be able to feed about 25 worms per year. You should be able to find them at a local nursery or even on Amazon. Goats and rabbits can safely eat mulberry leaves. Chickens will happily clean up any fallen fruit that you don’t harvest for yourself. Mulberry plants are also good partners for apple trees if you set up a plant guild. They can be coppiced and used for firewood. Mulberry bushes can also make good hedges, so it shouldn’t be hard to add in such multi-purpose plants even in a small scale homestead.
You can purchase silkworm eggs online from Aurora Silk. They are also available online from Silkworm Shop. You may need to invest in a moderate amount of equipment. such as shelves with trays for them to grow on, thermometers and space heaters to maintain ideal temperatures, but it’s possible you may be able to repurpose things you already have into workable solutions. Cardboard boxes should work for hatching chambers. Rubbermaid tubs may make good growing chambers. You could use an aquarium and rolled paper to create a spinning chamber.
Caring For Silkworms
When you first receive silkworm eggs you should keep them at about 80 degrees for seven to fourteen days. They should have about six square inches per 25 worms. As soon as they hatch they will need shredded tender mulberry leaves two or three times per day. They should be kept at a consistent temperature, although some sources say 70-72 degrees and others say 75-85 degrees.
As the worms grow they can handle more mature leaves, and should be fed three to four times a day. Mature worms should be given two square feet per twenty five worms. Their waste should be cleaned frequently. Loosely woven baskets that let the waste fall through should make it an easier job. The silkworms will molt periodically. During a molt they will not eat or move much.
Before the worms begin to spin they should be placed in a spinning chamber with ample space and ventilation. Brushy twigs or bundles of straw make good places for them to spin their cocoons. After this stage you can either steam the chrysalises to kill the pupa or you can let them all hatch. Make sure to separate your breeders if choosing the first method.
The mature moths emerge, mate, lay eggs and then die. They do not eat or fly. The females should be given leaves to lay their eggs on so that you can remove the eggs and place them in the refrigerator. They require a three month cooling period before they will hatch and be ready to begin the cycle again.
If you think silkworms might be a good fit for your homestead there are a few sources with detailed information on cultivating silkworms. The I Like Bugs article is a quick read with detailed instructions on raising silkworms. Google Books has a free copy of The Culture Of The Mulberry Silkworm, published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1903. It’s old, but it’s very meticulous in it’s detail.
By utilizing the resources you can produce in a small space and with homegrown feeds, you can increase the productivity and usefulness of your homestead. Silkworms could absolutely make your homestead better!
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