Saturday, February 28, 2009

Silkworm food Update

In case anyone was worried the silkworm food supplier has just emailed - they are going to send me 200g of food on Monday to tide me over until their next shipment arrives from their supplier. I am much relieved.


My Expanding Family: Do not watch if of a squeamish nature.

I think I must have 200 little silkies now. I think they are slowly becoming more attractive. Well, bigger, anyway. I have many more eggs in the fridge.

However the food situation is now getting desperate, and I am eking it out. The firm has taken my money (quite a lot of it) but has ignored all my attempts to contact them, so I have now made a dispute claim with paypal. I do know another firm which is more reliable, but unfortunately they are on holiday until mid-March...oh, the drama!

Since they are 5 days old they really should have moulted by now and should be in their second instar. If you click on the photo above I think you can see that some of them are half brown and half white, and wonder if they are in 'mid-moult' and the moulting process is not as dramatic as I'd imagined. I'd expected a cracking open of skin, but instead it seems to be a very thin outer brown layer that gradually rolls or wears away from the head-end revealing the whiter skin beneath.

Comparing this photo with the one two days ago, I can see that their white portion has increased, indeed some have lost their brown skin altogether, and the brown portion that remains is shiny, as if stretched.

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All In A Name

So...since Mr Madeoff made off with all the cash, and Mr Goodwin won himself a good pension, I have decided that names matter and henceforth wish to be known as 'Primo Besseller' and I'm starting my new opus now. I don't see how I can fail.


Summer addiction

Cory Doctorow writes about arcades this morning on Boing Boing. It is a historical feature because, I suddenly realise, of course the advent of the games console has meant that there aren't any arcades, any more...well not around here. Although Chester, I suspect, has always been too sleepy for such things.

I remember loving arcades when really young; not the electronic games - although I trailed around Europe aged twenty in search of 'Galaxion' machines, and would watch with little attention while my three male companions got their fix - but the more old-fashioned games of penny shoves I usually encountered on sea-side piers. Perhaps they are still there. Maybe they are more long-lived than the electronic games - there is something timelessly alluring about the penny-shove.

Each time it seemed a 'certain thing'. The pennies would be teetering as deliciously as melting ice-cream. The next coin would be 'the one' to tip them all over the edge - a sure-fire winner. I'd line up the little ramp with the skill acquired over my wasted summer, wait for the ledge at the back to pull back - and let my penny roll.

It was a tense few seconds waiting to see what would happen; the timing of the rolling coin versus the movement of the shelf was everything. Sometimes it would land perfectly behind a particularly overcrowded part of the shelf, and I would watch without breathing as the shelf moved back into position. For a second or two there would be a slow-motion jostling before the coins would, once again, settle themselves - this time into a even more incredibly precarious position. But already my next coin would be at the slot waiting for its moment.

I can understand quite easily how someone could become addicted to such things; the strange satisfaction of watching one perfectly placed coin shoving the next and the next, and then the magnificent clatter of coins into the drawer below is something I recall even now. There'd be a frantic scramble to gather them all before anyone else did (one of my brothers), and then the carrying of the loot to the kiosk to be turned into something smaller and more silver. Ah, riches. It was probably much less than I'd gone in with, but it didn't matter. The sensible thing to do then, of course, would be to quit and walk away - but somehow that never happened.

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Friday, February 27, 2009


And here comes the thing that I love; an idea blossoming as a cloud does in a clear sky - white appearing from nowhere and growing into something that fits exactly between the thing that I already know and that thing that I shall know tomorrow.


Thursday, February 26, 2009

My new offspring at 3 days old

How quickly the excitement dies down at a new arrival! At three days old the silkworm larvae are showing signs of growing up: they are losing their hair and growing paler, and of course they have become much larger. They are still in their first instar - the period of time before their first moulting. Soon they are supposed to stop whatever they are doing and play a sort of etymological game of statues. They will be gathering their thoughts, or maybe their skin cells, so that they slip from their old restrictive skin and expose their new one.

But in the meantime, they keep eating...and wriggling.


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Something Fishy

Well, it's been a fishy sort of day on twitter. First a tweet from @mocost (Mo Costandi) with news from the university of Washington about a fish called H psychedelica that bounces along the ocean floor using the current, odd jets of air from specially-located gills and even more impressively adapted leg-like flippers (there is a video of the fish 'walking' here) .

Then, this afternoon, a tweet from @BoingBoing with a link to a press release from Monteray Bay Aquarium Research Institute on an extraordinary fish with a transparent head.

Then, finally, a link to a short Nature paper from @NatureNews with the enticing headline: 'Fossils reveal early evidence for penetrative sex'. This too is about a fish, this time a fossil-fish which is having its anatomy re-assessed and finishes with an even better line from John Long of Monash University in Australia: '"We have an expression that humans like to get a leg over," Long says. "But these placoderms actually like to get a leg in."' There is a video here and it is really interesting.

Fossilised fish are often found in limestone nodules. Once a fossil is found the limestone around it can be dissolved away using the acid in vinegar: ethanoic acid. This old technique (discovered in the nineteen forties) has recently been developed using more dilute solutions to give a more delicate removal of the limestone. This has resulted in new detail being revealed including a mother fish with an umbilical cord and embryo attached.

It seems that this sort of 'live' reproduction must be initiated by penetrative sex, therefore when another class of fish was found to have an embryo (rather than as had been previously thought, a meal inside it) this meant that this class of fish relied on penetrative sex too. A re-examination of the fossils showed that some had the same sort of apparatus as modern day sharks - hence the expression by John Long, above.

So a very interesting day in terms of fish, but not, alas, in terms of silkworms. They are just eating...and growing.

Coincidentally, this is tonight's supper: cous cous, courgettes, mushrooms, red onions and peppers and a nice bit of...salmon (sans flipper-legs, see-through head...or anything else for that matter).

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Jill Dawson at the South Bank

Unfortunately I cannot get down to London to see Jill Dawson, of whom I am a fan, discuss (with Suzi Feay) her infatuation with the poet Rupert Brooke. I wish I could. It's on Thursday 5th March in the Blue Room at the South Bank. Details here.

I shall console myself with the news that this event heralds a new Jill Dawson novel: THE GREAT LOVER, which has Rupert Brooke at its heart, and I look forward to reading this very soon. It has a beautiful cover...

'Through the chance correspondence of a young Tahitian woman, who claims to be the poet's daughter and Nell Golightly, who met Brooke as a young man, she unfolds a fascinating historical narrative.'

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Squirming Mass.

(Click on the image for full effect).

From a distance the food looks like some indeterminate lump of something green, but on closer inspection it is possible to see that the lump is, in fact, covered with a mass of constantly moving tiny brown hairy caterpillars. Underneath I can see that they are each eating away a small furrow and this is giving the mass a spongy texture.

As I move in closer it seems like the larvae are hovering in mid-air as if already they are spinning silk. Perhaps they are. They already move as their parents moved when searching for a place to spin: their hind quarters locked into position and their black heads, outlined by a paler thorax, circling the air, presumably sniffing for food. Perhaps they have chemical receptors that will react to only one thing: mulberry leaf.

Anyway, the whole effect is slightly revolting, so I just had to share it...

Added Later.

Looking at the photograph I can see now why the eggs grow darker. I'd thought it was just that the egg-case hardens and darkens as a consequence. But on closer study I think the darkening is due to the black caterpillar forming inside. The indentation in the surface is because it is curled around itself in a ring. The case of the egg, I think, remains translucent, and as the caterpillar grows it becomes more darkly pigmented.

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More babies!

In order to acclimatise a batch of eggs to cooler conditions (i.e. the fridge), I put them on the window sill in the kitchen overnight. However, when I looked this morning I saw I was too late and tens of yet more silkworms have hatched out overnight. I have grated some food over them and put them in with my other hatchlings.

I am now a little worried about the food situation and have ordered 1kg of dried mulberry concentrate - I just hope that it comes in time.

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Monday, February 23, 2009

Silkworm Babies!

To be honest I had given up on them. I had resigned myself to them not doing anything: the grey colouration of the eggs, I'd thought, was probably due to mould rather than anything that should be happening. True, I'd noticed that a few of the eggs seemed to have developed black spots, but I really thought they were all going to be duds (heh - obviously not my favourite expression).

But just half an hour a go I happened to take a look and to my great surprise and delight I saw that some of them had hatched!

(If you click on the picture you get a bigger picture of course, and can see their brown hairy bodies and shiny black heads, and the eggs which up close have the same shape as red blood cells).

The ruler underneath is showing centimetres with millimetre intervals - so they are very tiny, about 2 mm long. They seemed to be crawling quite rapidly looking for food - though when I tried to take a movie they didn't seem to be moving at all.

Very luckily I happened to have some food left over in the fridge so I added a few gratings very close to them. They seemed to start crawling towards it immediately, and when I looked a minute os so later they had crawled on top of it and were busy munching away. Since they eat a lot I thought I'd better get some more, but my supplier has gone on holiday, and an alternative number was answered by a woman who seemed to have her hands full looking after a screaming baby, so I am going to ring back later, and hope very much they can help.

Ah, such drama - who would have thought looking after a few caterpillers could be so exciting!

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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Secret Manchester.

In Manchester where there glass towers are held erect on scaffold

and the remains of something older and medieval nestle warily between the stones of something later

and the mock-up of the entrance to a Roman fort lines up with the shimmering walls of the Hilton tower

a beautiful girl poses for the camera, and draws my eye

almost as much as the mirrored Urbis centre; its walls apparently transparent but really reflecting the skies, while a camera keeps a watchful eye on assembled goths and other city-dwellers.

That is the world above but underneath it all there is this:

a disused workshop, a mine-shaft, a cemetery and whole streets. Abandoned canal junctions connect the functioning waterways

and culverts, and there are drains, coal mines, sewers, cathedral-sized spaces for telephone exchanges, cold-war shelters, secret hideaways for priests in times of persecution, half-finished and never used reservoirs, and mysterious brick-lined tunnels with elaborate arches large enough for a horse and cart...

For instance, the Manchester City News in 1911 described the discovery of a large tunnel that, according to one old man, was part of a network, and was then thought to be 200-300 years old. It is intriguing to think that the centre of the city is riddled with such passageways connecting cathedral to river, and even, in the middle of the eighteenth century allowed the escape of a man wanted for murder. He was trailed to a house on Cumberland Street, and was seen to enter it, but never to have left it, but had evidently made his escape underground arriving at a point 'beyond the ken' of his pursuers.

I discovered all this in Underground Manchester by Keith Warrender, a book I bought at the Urbis Centre after seeing a photographic exhibition there by Andrew Brooks called Hidden Manchester.

The photographs are remarkable and just the sort of thing I love - tunnels leading somewhere, lit by some unknown but promising source; and views of the city at night from the cathedral - the lights focused at some burning focal point. They are enhanced and skilfully composed, sometimes with a cubist manipulation of image so that the roof of a bell-tower is seen on the same continuous plane as the walls and floor. I now have a signed one of my favourite - an underground culvert called Big Humpty. You can see all of the pictures here.

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Bob Dylan - The Times They Are A Changin' (Unreleased 1976)

While continuing my Dylan-Feste I inevitably came across this...

The novel I'd started last year now seems out of date (a drawback of trying to strike out and write something in the present) so I have decided to abandon it.

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Silkworm cycles

Yesterday, at dawn, my last silkworm emerged from her cocoon and promptly started to mate. This morning she has laid some eggs. I have a feeling this may be the last clutch. Other matings seemed to have yielded no eggs at all. I think maybe these held on to each other too long because now they seem to be almost dead with exhaustion.

These are all that are left. The majority have died. They seem to die gently and gradually, life slowly leaving them, and I pick them out and place them alongside the cocoon. How shrivelled and small they seem to be now. All that huge consumption of mulberry leaf extract has led to is this.

And this.

Where does it go? I think the answer must be into the air: starches converted to sugars in the gut of the silkworm and then stored as fat, must eventually be consumed in the business of mating to produce energy and carbon dioxide and water...which the mulberry bush could one day use again to produce more leaf. It is a pretty cycle.

In some parts of china the silkworm-mulberry plantation, together with a fish pond, provide a self-contained ecosystem for a small community. The silkworm feeds on the mulberry and produces cocoons. Its waste is fed to the fish; white the pupa provide useful nourishment to the growers. The sludge from the fishpond is used to fertilise the mulberry plants, and the fish themselves are another source of food. I like the way nothing is allowed to go to waste. An extension of this idea - the use of silkworms as a useful food for astronauts - is reported in March's edition of Scientific American. Pupa not only contain fat, but four times as much protein as eggs and milk. Also 'These insects breed quickly, require little space, food or water, and produce only minute amounts of excrement, which could serve as fertilizer for onboard plants.'

I am not so sure about 'little food' - but I suppose in comparison with most mammals and birds silk worms are indeed very efficient converters of plant into animal.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

W.G.Sebald Resource.

I have just come across an interesting website called Vertigo which is devoted (mainly) to books with photographs embedded in the text.

For instance if you go here you will find a link to an issue of Hamish Hamilton's on-line magazine Five Dials which is mainly about W.G. Sebald. It is beautifully produced (as you might expect).

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Monday, February 16, 2009

What I'm Doing 27:

What I'm listening to:

Bob Dylan performing Isis in 1975.

I just heard of a baby called Isis which reminded me of this...and a concert I went to when I was aged 17 with Bob Dylan and 25 000 others.

Just listening to this reminds me how much I love Dylan...

What I watched last:

Three Colours White.

A sequel to 'Three Colours Blue' and a really good film about a polish emigré who is divorced by the woman he loves.

What I'm reading:

'The Siege of Krishnapur' by J.G. Farrell ...slowly due to lack of time, but loving every minute that I manage to snatch with it,

and also 'On Writing' by Stephen King.

What I'm working on:

editing - my Patagonia book (again!) and also a couple of other people's books.

What I'm dreaming about:

starting another novel; going back to the gym (when my 'runner's knee' improves); and also watching my silkworm eggs hatching.

Silkworm Reproduction

I lift the lid. I know the sound by now; a desperate throbbing of wings. Two silk moths huddles together - the tip of his abdomen inserted into the tip of another. I feel like I shouldn't be watching, but I do. In fact, I am mesmerised.

Clearly it requires effort. Slowly, it seems, this male moth is pumping all that remains of his life into hers. All those days of eating, eating, eating - all for this. It goes on and on, day after night after day. A short rest and then he starts again: a fast beating of the wings, the tiniest shove. And she just sits there. Fatly immobile. Docilely smug. As soon as she emerges they are after her. A little eau de Bombxyol behind a middle segment and she could be anyone's.

Then, a day or so later, they will mysteriously detach. He might busy himself with a search for another, but shortly thereafter he will die. She, meanwhile, will excrete one glistening yellow drop of liquid - the remains of whatever toxins remain inside her - and then will start to lay her eggs. She places them delicately, her abdomen tip describing circles and lines, one egg and then another, beads the size of pin heads, a production line of seeds to harden, darken and eventually become another - just like her.

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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sunday Salon: MAN TALKING and an Interview with Mike Heppner

I've had a busy few weeks and so have not read much that I can usefully post on Sunday Salon.

However, this week I did manage to fit in an on-line novella. It is called MAN TALKING by Mike Heppner (click on the link, fifth paragraph down). It is about a writer, and is a search for love, but is also a kind of contemplation on the business of writing too. I thought the writing was superb and at the end of it just wanted to tell everyone I knew to read it too!

There are some fantastic descriptions of why we write, an author's life, insomnia and how writers interact with each other. The ending was stunning. You find yourself reading that part again just for the pleasure of it and the very satisfying ambiguity.

It is part of a very interesting project.
After reading his novella I emailed Mike and asked him if he would give me a quick interview, and he kindly said yes, so have posted it here.

Mike Heppner was born in Rhode Island in 1972, and grew up in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. His first novel, THE EGG CODE, was published in 2002, and his second, PIKE'S FOLLY, in 2006. He lives in Belmont, Massachusetts and teaches Creative Writing at Emerson College. A third novel is forthcoming.


CD: The novella you published first on-line, 'Man Talking' is the third of a quartet (although each can stand alone). How do the novellas fit together? What determines their order?
MH: The four sections all show, through different lenses, the individual’s ultimately non-materialistic aspirations coming up against the forces of commerce and other people’s independent wills. The sequence is deliberate, though it has evolved over time. “Talking Man” focuses on childhood. “Man” is autobiography, though with an interesting twist. “Man Talking” is a comedic rhapsody on suicide. And “Talking” takes the themes explored in the first three sections and hands them over to other voices.

CD: Is there a common theme? Is the business of creative writing important in each of them? MH: Not the business so much as what’s left when you take the business-part away.

CD: The sucture of this book is very interesting and original: the first person narrative sometimes wraps around another character 'Jack' andtr a third person narrative sometimes takes over. I suppose it is this, in part, which makes it 'literary fiction'. What do you consider to be 'literary fiction'?
MH: It’s a term of convenience to identify writing that doesn’t fall under any other set category, such as Romance, Fantasy, and Suspense. It’s a coded way for people who consider themselves intellectuals to inform the rest of the world, “Don’t bother.”

CD: What are your major influences as a writer? MH: Joseph McElroy, David Plante, William Gaddis, to name a few.

CD: What do you think of the advice: 'Write about what you know'?
MH: It’s about as helpful as the advice, “Breathe air.”

CD: You also teach creative writing. Which do you think helps a writer more: teaching it or being taught?

MH: I don’t see the two as being separate. The only differences between now and ten years ago (when I was a student) are my age, my “credentials,” and the fact that I get paid (as opposed to paying tuition).

CD: What are the rewards and benefits to a writer of exploring different ways of 'being published'?

MH: That remains to be seen. By the way, I don’t consider “Man Talking” published, since the means of presentation is entirely self-contained. “Publishing” on a certain level means “working with other people who have the option of saying no to you,” and for that reason I consider “Talking Man” published, “Man” hand-distributed, and “Man Talking” presented to readers. I would like to publish all four sections some day.

General Questions.

CD: Do you have any connection with snails? (or anecdotes, memorable encounters..etc.)

MH: I used to love escargot when I was little, and then I put two and two together.

CD: What is your proudest moment?

MH: I’m proud of my work.

CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?

MH: Seeing someone close to me weather a life-threatening illness.

CD: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?

MH: See above.

CD: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?

MH: To be less obsessive and achievement-oriented, and to take better care of myself physically.

CD: What is happiness?

MH: Making productive use of one’s talents.

CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?

MH: Nowadays I give my two-week-old daughter her bottle.

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Saturday, February 14, 2009

For Valentine's Day I refer you to...

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Chemistry of Silkworm Eggs

I am getting a satisfactory collection of eggs. These change colour as they age. When they are laid they are a creamy white, they then become yellow, then brown then grey. The seem to harden too. I am keeping them warm and humid, and once all the moths are dead (though only one female has died so far) I am going to treat a few of them with hydrochloric acid.

Silk worms come in several types, and one way to distinguish them is by how many times they breed in a year. In temperate places they tend to breed just once, or more commonly twice, a year to coincide with the leafing of their only food-source, the mulberry. These are called monovoltine or bivoltine respectively. In tropical regions the silkworms tend to be multivoltine. The eggs take only about 10-12 days to hatch because the mulberry is in leaf all year round. Multivoltine silk tends to be inferior to bivoltine silk - being thinner, more variable and shorter. So a common practice in India is to hybridise the silkmoths with the hybrids having the favourable characteristics of both parents.

Unfortunately I have no idea what sort of silk moths I have. If they are bivoltine they might need to be kept for a few months in cool conditions. However it is possible to speed things along by washing them in hydrochloric acid. This destroys the enzyme present in the temperate silkworms that inhibits their development in the egg. So I think I will experiment with just a few and see what happens.

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Menage a Trois

Well there are only five occupied cocoons now - and so far my cocoons have yielded five females and twelve males; five of these males are of course very happy... and the rest very frustrated. So frustrated, in fact, that this morning I discovered that one newly-emerged female was somehow mating with two males at the same time (I did not take photos). I prized off the more disreputable-looking one and put the remaining pair in the 'ovarium'.

Here is a short clip I took a couple of days ago of a recently-emerged female attempting to dry off, and the males just starting to pay her some attention.

I wonder if it is usual to have such an imbalance of males and females. I know in other insect colonies this is the case, and I can see why - but I don't really see why there should be in a population of silk moths.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

MAN TALKING by Mike Heppner.

I spent a wonderful couple of hours reading Mike Heppner's novella, MAN TALKING, yesterday - and you can too since it is on-line here (click on the link fifth paragraph down).

I think it is a brilliant piece of writing - really innovative, interesting and absorbing...

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Monday, February 09, 2009

An Unhealthy Obsession.

Great excitement among my male silk moths this morning; each one was wildly flapping his wings. The reason was that another female moth had emerged. Already one male had mated with her, and another was trying to attach himself to her too. Now that I know about the pheromone, it all makes sense.

I removed the extra male as gently as possible, and then put the mating pair (stripy male and female) in another box to give them a little peace. At once the rest calmed down. That pheromone is a powerful molecule, but it seems that once the source is removed the effect soon fades away.

I then managed, at last, to separate yesterday's happily mating couple (stripy female-unstripy male), removed the male, and after waiting a few seconds replaced the paper under the female - which was now dirty. She then promptly started to lay her eggs. It were as if I had given her permission.

I am trying to leave the silk moths alone now, and divert my mind back to the Patagonia novel. I want to try and finish the Tehuelche edits this week because I have to give in the revised manuscript to my editor at Seren in March.

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Sunday, February 08, 2009

The Clinch.

In fact there was no need to do my light experiment, because when I woke this morning I discovered that two more moths had emerged overnight and one of them - which was huge with eggs - was in the process of being fertilised by one of waiting males....So maybe they were all males after all.

I have tried to separate them just now because I thought they had been mating long enough (they are only 'supposed' to mate for three hours) but I was unable to break their clinch. I have transferred them to my 'ovarium' (a box with a wet flannel over the top inside another box with a lid in an attempt to keep them humid enough).

I have also put them on some glossy paper in case this proves to be a better medium for eggs than newspaper.

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Saturday, February 07, 2009

A Possible State of Confusion

Silk worm moths are supposed to emerge from their cocoons frantic to mate, but all my silkmoths seem to do is occasionally twirl their sinister little faces or flutter their wings. Mainly they do nothing. I have come to the conclusion they are either (i) all male or (ii) hopelessly confused.

According to Pabran Baishya in the 'The Silk Industry of Assam' the Indian word for the adult silk moth, Punjapati, is the same word as for 'the divine creator' since, like the god, it lives not to eat, but to love and procreate. The silk moth does not have a fully formed mouth, and therefore cannot eat; it does, however, have some very sophisticated apparatus for seeking out a member of the opposite sex.

From glands in the abdomen the female silkworm emits a pheromone called bombykol. It is a fairly simple molecule - a chain of 14 carbon atoms with an alcohol group at the end, and two unsaturated carbon- carbon double bonds. It was the first pheromone ever to be discovered - by a Nobel-prize winning chemist called Adolf Butenandt in 1959 (he won the Nobel Prise in 1939 for his discovery of sex hormones). A male silk moth can detect the bombykol from a single female in the middle of an acre of field by means of his feathery antennae.

There are minute openings on the surface which allow the pheromone of the female through. A single molecule of bomykol is all that is required. It is transported to where it fits snugly into a chemical receptor molecule, which sets off a chain of reactions which eventually results in a signal to the male's brain to 'come hither'...and mate.

So, given it is such a sensitive detection system, why aren't my silkworms mating? Surely they can't all be males. I am beginning to come to the conclusion that they might be confused.

According to this paper from the 1988 edition of the Journal of Agricultural and Biological Chemistry, the level of female hormone peaks four hours after the light has come on - and my moths have been kept in semi-darkness. Perhaps the females aren't producing any pheromone as a result, and so the males are forced to sit and wait.

So tomorrow morning I am intending to expose them to the light in the hope that if there is a female there it will start to produce bombykol and secure a mate.

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Friday, February 06, 2009

Egg Laying.

I took another photo of the mating moths this afternoon,

then, when I checked on them again this evening found them detached, but still close together on the same cocoon. Unable to decide which was male and which was female, I pulled them gently away from the cocoon and placed them on some newspaper in their own private place.

Now the female moth is supposed to be larger than the male, but the smaller one seeemed to have the fatter more feminine body.
'I think the big one is the female,' I said to Hodmandod Senior, 'but it's difficult to tell, isn't it?'
'Well I think it's the other one,' he said, 'because she's the one laying the eggs.'

And so she was, one after the next, tiny pale yellow thing the size of pin heads, conveniently on the black print of the newspaper.

I have left her in peace to finish her work - by the time she finishes there may be close to 400 of them. Getting them to hatch sounds like it might be the most difficult task of all.

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Emergence Day!

I just looked under the flannel this morning, not expecting to see much, but instead I saw this!

Three moths have emerged, and two of them (at the top) are mating already. They seem to exude a sticky substance when they come out which stick the cocoons together so I am going to space the rest out, and also try and check them in the early hours which is when they tend to emerge. I wonder if it was the damp flannel that did the trick. No doubt I shall write more on this later, but in the meantime here is a little film...

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Thursday, February 05, 2009

What's in the box...

beneath the lid...

but another box...

covered up like a magician's trick...

to reveal...ta-dah...

another box...of beautiful white cocoons.

I have decided that the pupae are taking to long to emerge, maybe because the air in the airing cupboard is not humid enough. So I have soaked one of Hodmandod Senior's old flannels to act as a humidifier which also effectively keeps out the light.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009


I just found this while tidying up. I think it will make an excellent decoration for my shed. I bought it when I was researching for my book on Wegener.

The place where I went is called Ummannaq. It is on a tiny island just off the west coast (a lot of the settlements in Greenland are on islands because that is the best place to avoid the mosquitoes of early summer).

Ummannaq is on the map on the left side, close to the top just before the insert. It was cold and very beautiful, and just looking at it reminds me of a narrow shelf beside an iceberg-filled sea where some writers had a hut one summer. That was some retreat! I've always planned to go back there some day.

Cocoon Harvest

Altogether I have 22 cocoons.

The ones in the egg boxes are from the stripy silkworms and I thought, if I get enough female and male moths, I will do a little genetic experiment on them: mate a stripy with another stripy, a stripy with a non-stripy...and so on.

I'm keeping them warm, but I'm wondering if our airing cupboard is perhaps not humid enough for them. I'm also wondering if I should cut away the cocoons from some of them to see how the pupae develop. From what I've read, this does no harm. Ah, the fun never ends!

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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Mike Heppner's Experiment

Mike Heppner was published in 2002 to critical acclaim. His second novel fared well. But by 2007 he was having trouble placing his work.

From the Christian Science Monitor:
'"I was frustrated," he remembers. "No one was biting anymore. I felt out of the scene. I wondered for a while there if I should just give up."

Part of the problem, he knew, was the shrinking demand for literary fiction. Sales across the country were slumping, independent bookstores were shuttering, and most publishers had not yet discovered how to best reach a Web audience. Still, Heppner had been a writer for 15 years, "and if you've been doing something for 15 years," he says with a laugh, "it's hard to stop."'

His solution was to publish his next novella, 'Man Talking' on-line (I have started reading this and think it's excellent), then the one after that with a small press, and to release his third to random locations across the US.

This sounds an intriguing experiment, and I see some similarities with my own situation, so I shall be interested to see what happens next.

The last Silkworm

My last silk worm, Madonna, is now busy at her cocoon. It is a task she seems to have embarked on reluctantly, loathe to acknowledge that maturity eventually catches up with every living thing, even a silkworm. She has been fussy, starting her cocoon again and again, so now there is a curtain of webbing along the entire side of her plastic box. It is as if she is trying to defy her instinct. But now she seems a little more focused, settling back on the tiny sucker-like crochets of her prolegs, her thorax pivoting around her abdomen as she spools out her silk.

Early yesterday, when I was cleaning out her box, I let her crawl along my clean hand. My last silkworm. She felt warm, plump, almost mammal-like, her feet lightly tapping at my skin, while her mouth touched my skin with something that seemed like insect kisses. After a few seconds I put her back into her clean box and held my hand up to the light, and where she had been was a fine trail of silk connecting one finger to the next. I am going to miss her.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Reeling: 2nd Attempt

Yesterday I tried reeling again. This time I used water at around blood temperature (37 degrees C) as measured with my sugar thermometer.

I had suspected that one of the reasons the cocoons are boiled is to kill the pupae, and the only reason the pupae are killed is to stop them from destroying the cocoons with enzymes from their saliva (as they hatch from the cocoons into a moths). I wondered if it would be possible to not kill the pupa and still reel some silk by keeping the water warm rather than hot, removing not all of the cocoon and allowing the pelade (inner section) to stay intact.

This did not work too well. After brushing the cocoons with a toothbrush in the water, which removed all the outside floss, I succeeded in getting a long thread but it was so fine that it kept breaking. In this video you might just be able to make out the thread as it is reeled from the cocoon...

So I then handed over to Hodmandod Senior who has far more patience, and he succeeding in brushing five of the cocoons and finding the ends of each of them. He then attempted to pull them from the cocoon together as they do in 'filatures' (factories that reel silk from cocoons), but the silk kept breaking after about a couple of metres (I'd thought that maybe if they were reeled and twisted together they might not break so easily).

So I am wondering now that it is actually necessary to heat the water to boiling to dissolve the siricin glue and hence loosen the fibres (or bave) so that they can be reeled from the cocoon.

However, I don't think I am going to find out. Since the water was getting a little cold I warmed it a little and, as the cocoons were bobbing around in the water, I am sure some of them rolled on their own - perhaps the pupa were reacting to the warmth - so we took them out and dried them. They are in the airing cupboard again now, and now when I look at them this morning they look unnaturally clean and perfect - as if they were made by machine rather than the erratic moving of the head of an insect.

Added later. A paper in the Journal of Insect Biotechnology and Sericology in 2005 described a new race of silkworms that spun cocoons composed of 98.5% sericin. According to this article sericin dissolves only after being either hydrolysed by alkaline detergent or autoclaved at 115 degrees C for ten minutes. Each of these, I suspect, would kill the pupa inside the cocoon, so it looks unlikely that it is possible to successfully reel silk from a cocoon without destroying the pupa inside.

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