Joan Honeyman holds in her cupped hand a couple of saffron-yellow clouds -- cocoons of silkworms raised on leaves from the mulberry trees in the back yard of her Old Town Alexandria row house.
In a cardboard box nearby, the moths spend their final days in a romantic frenzy. Never eating, they live only to mate, lay eggs and die.
"Biology in action -- I love it!" Honeyman says, pointing out a tattered pair, wings beating madly in silkmoth ecstasy.
Honeyman is one of perhaps as many as 100 amateur silkworm growers in the Washington area. An industry that's thousands of years old, silkworm cultivation is definitely a low-tech enterprise. The distribution system is generally friend-to-friend.
Although Honeyman got hers from a University of North Carolina schoolmate, the silkworms originally may have come from a "spin-in" sponsored several years ago by the Arachne Spinners -- a local weaving group -- at Gunston Hall, a colonial plantation near Alexandria.
Honeyman raised the silkworms last spring and summer, saving the cocoons for another friend, a weaver, who has promised to make them into a silk tie.
Last year was the second year Honeyman, a landscape planner, cultivated silkworms. She started with nine cocoons; six hatched 400 eggs that spent the winter in an envelope in her refrigerator. She brought them out in late May and, thanks to twice-daily leaf picking and weekend worm-sitting by Michael, the boy next door, 200 spun their fleecy shells -- made of a single half-mile-long thread -- and metamorphosed from pupae to moths.
Master weaver Kay Speakman of Colesville, who raises about 1,000 cocoons a year, dyes the silk with natural dyes, and knits, weaves and crochets it into handkerchiefs and other objects. One cocoon, she says, yields just enough thread for a piece of material 1 1/2 inches square. A vest she knitted took 110 cocoons: "That's why silk clothes are so expensive," she says.
The insect's two-month life cycle makes it attractive to amateur biologists and teachers as well as spinners. Elementary school teacher Martha Burak, also of Colesville, got her group of worms from Speakman as a science project for her son. He has since taught his friends the culture. "I can introduce you to a dozen 7-year-olds who raise silkworms," Burak says. Burak in turn was the source of the colony of Bombyx mori raised last year by Kay Taub in the Insect Zoo at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History.
While the difficulty of raising the insect can be exaggerated, there are pitfalls. The worms die if they get wet or too warm. "I call them the cows of the insect world," the Smithsonian's Taub says. "They've been cultivated so long they wouldn't survive without us. They are very susceptible to disease. You practically have to put the foliage on them to get them to eat it." Honeyman lost nearly half her herd to sunburn and dehydration after leaving them outside too long.
Aside from a clean box, a little humidity and some attention, the only other necessity is fresh mulberry leaves. Ideally, eggs should be timed to hatch just as the first leaves appear on the tree since the tiny new worms can eat only the most tender shoots. They graduate to older leaves after about 10 days.
The worms go through five growth periods -- totaling 25 to 30 days -- of eating and sleeping. They feast on mulberry leaves for three to six days, sleep a day, and then, having shed their old skin, resume mulberry leaf munching.
Once fully grown, it takes about three days for the worm to spin a cocoon, and another two to three days to change into the pupa stage.
While raising silkworms seems easy enough, problems mount as the farm size increases.
"I felt like I was bringing whole trees into the zoo last spring," recalls Taub, who raised more than 1,000 of the critters. "You could hear them going crunch, crunch, crunch."
Then there was the problem of what to do with them. "I gave a lot to schools," Taub says, "and sent a bunch to Oregon. And some I gave to the lizards at the National Zoo."
Taub now works at the National Zoo, but Tom Munte, who has taken over the silkworm project at the Insect Zoo, says he plans to raise them again this year. The best time to see these cultivated worms is late May and early June.