I want to share a story of how I learned to rear Eri silkworms.
How would you react if someone were to leave a bunch of caterpillars with you to take care of without any warning? Well, I can share with you what it was like for me!
When Miranda gave me around 80 eggs of Eri silkworms and asked me to take care of them until the worms spun cocoons, I was confused and a little bit worried as this is something new to me. What am I supposed to do with these creepy crawlies? Moreover, I was still involved with the processing of Lakadong Turmeric at the Zizira Campus.
“Why did they give me this task?” I asked myself, a task which I had no knowledge of.
A few minutes of deep thinking is all I needed to realize that it was a great opportunity for me to accept new challenges that would help me as well as our company to grow. After all, I knew that Muezart was trying to improve the livelihood of Eri silk farmers.
Eri silk, also known as peace silk, is a specialty product of Meghalaya, a state in the North-eastern part of India, which is blessed with natural beauty and is home to several unique medicinal herbs and spices. Did you know that the entire ecosystem of creating Eri silk products takes place in a single village.
There is a complete circular economy of Eri silk in the villages in Meghalaya. Farmers rear Eri silkworms in their homes, harvest the silk fiber from the cocoons, spin yarn, and even dye and weave the yarn into stoles or scarves. For those who don't make many sell the cocoons and get started with rearing another batch.
The silk products are sold by the local weavers in organized government arts and craft shows like SARAS.
These ladies are weavers from Meghalaya selling their handwoven Eri silk shawls at a SARAS event in Shillong. The women explain to the Muezart team about the natural color obtained from a leaf.
Rearing Eri silkworms is a cottage industry which can provide a livelihood to many, if the farmers were to get more support to ensure the quality of the fiber and if there is an assured market. I quickly realized that this was my purpose and connection to rearing cocoons. I needed to know how it was done, how we could keep the cycle going year-round, and how we could improve the quality of the cocoon.
Failed the first time, but got better
Let me get back to my silkworm rearing story!
My attempt at taking care of the first batch of Eri silk caterpillars was not successful! Bad luck.
It was a lesson learned because the worms were attacked by ants and 40-50% of them died. Now I know that one needs to guard the cocoons from ants.
Moreover, castor leaves that the caterpillar feeds on, was not easy to find near where I worked. When I ran out of the castor leaves the worms would crawl outside of the baskets in search for more food.
Soon I learned a lot about rearing Eri silkworms
The second batch was good. By now I had learned how to feed the worms. I had even learned to identify good quality cocoons! Jumping into the deep end and learning to rear Eri silkworms had taught me quicker than if someone had coached or trained me.
I also learned how to source food to feed the worms. I took our CEO Ralph’s suggestion of growing the castor plants at our new village campus. That crop is producing well.
Challenges in Rearing Eri Silkworms
Now that I had some hands-on experience, I was able to go to the village and identify with the locals who were doing the same thing. I met with a few farmers and they shared some of the challenges they face in rearing the Eri silkworms:
It is hard to source fresh castor leaves in the dry season, thus forcing farmers to take a break in rearing.
Rearing the worms was like taking care of babies at home. It requires continuous care, especially when they are 15 days or more old.
This is How The Worms Act At This Stage:
Stage 1: Eri silkworms started eating tapioca leaves as soon as they hatch from the eggs.
1-3 days old Eri silkworms
Stage 2: They eat the leaves continuously for growth. Notice the blackheads have formed. At this stage, they eat and then sleep for 3 days.
5-7 days old Eri silkworms
Stage 3: After they wake up, they begin eating again, and the color starts changing to a white yellow.
7-14 days old Eri silkworms
Silkworm Ready to Spin Stage: They feed for the final time and excrete their body waste and are ready to start spinning cocoons.
16-21 days old eri silkworms
Silkworm Begins to Spin Stage: After 20-22 days the spinning begins. The photo shows the silk thread cocoon formed after 15 minutes.
15 to 21 Days old Eri silkworms
Final Silkworm Stage: The completed silk cocoon is spun in less than an hour.
22 Days the Eri silk cocoon will be formed
It is important to note that a cooler temperature will cause the process to take longer.
The dry season in Meghalaya starts in the third week of December and goes on till the second week of March. Leaves dry and fall. This got me thinking… How could we keep the cycle extending through the 4 dry winter months? I needed to figure this problem out because Muezart needed thousands of Kilos of cocoons for our handspun yarn.
Will Eri silkworms eat leaves other than castor?
How to overcome the challenge of not enough castor leaves in the dry season? How to find food for the caterpillars through the year so the farmers can continue to rear Eri silkworms 12 months of the year?
It takes just 45 days from egg to the cocoon stage, which can then be sold by the farmers. Is that not a quick turnaround? Will, it is not good to be able to rear Eri silkworms through the year?
Will Eri silkworms thrive on any other leaves? I have set out to research and experiment. I asked some farmers too. Yes, there are some other leaves which can be used instead of castor leaves. Which one? Are the cocoons formed from silkworms fed with other leaves of good quality too?
Read about all this in my next post!