Facts about the animal kingdom

What Do Silkworm Moths Eat?

María Luz Thurman
By María Luz Thurman, Biologist/ornithologist. June 27, 2024
What Do Silkworm Moths Eat?

The silkworm moth (Bombyx mori), part of the Lepidoptera order, has been vital to human history due to its role in silk production. Its life cycle is also a fascinating example of adaptation. The key to the silkworm moth's success is its unique diet, which changes dramatically as it grows.

In this AnimalWised article, we'll explore what silkworm moths eat at different stages of their life and their amazing evolutionary adaptations.

You may also be interested in: Silkworm Life Cycle Stages
  1. Life stages of silkworm moths
  2. What is the main diet of silkworms?
  3. What is the main diet of silkworms moths?

Life stages of silkworm moths

Silkworm moths (Bombyx mori) undergo a fascinating transformation through complete metamorphosis, transitioning through several distinct stages:

Egg stage:

The life of a silkworm moth begins as a tiny egg, about 1-2 mm in diameter. The egg stage lasts around 10 to 14 days, depending on temperature and humidity. During this stage, there is no feeding; the developing embryo relies on the nutrients stored within the egg.

Larval stage (Caterpillar):

After hatching, the larva or caterpillar emerges. This stage is critical for growth and development. The larval stage lasts for about 4-6 weeks and includes five instars (molts). The larva grows rapidly, shedding its skin four times. Each molt marks the transition to a new instar, where the caterpillar increases in size.

Pupal stage:

After the larval stage, the silkworm spins a silk cocoon and enters the pupal stage. This stage lasts for around 10-14 days. Inside the cocoon, the larva undergoes metamorphosis, reorganizing its body structure to emerge as an adult moth. The stored nutrients, particularly proteins and carbohydrates, become the primary fuel for this complex metamorphosis. The caterpillar's digestive system becomes less active as it enters a preparatory phase, relying solely on the reserves accumulated during the larval stage.

Adult stage (Moth):

The final stage is the adult moth, which emerges from the cocoon. The adult stage is relatively short, lasting about 5-10 days. The primary purpose of the adult stage is reproduction. Adults mate, and females lay eggs to begin the cycle anew. After mating, the female lays eggs, thus restarting the life cycle. Adult moths typically die shortly after laying eggs.

Learn more about the different stages of the silkworm's life cycle in this article.

What is the main diet of silkworms?

Silkworm moths (Bombyx mori), particularly, represent a special case in the lepidopteran world. Silkworm moth larvae or caterpillars have a highly specialized diet, mainly feeding on mulberry leaves (Morus alba and Morus nigra). These leaves are rich in nutrients essential for the caterpillar's rapid growth and development. However, in situations where mulberry leaves are scarce, they may also consume leaves from closely related plants like elm and chestnut trees.

Caterpillars spend most of their time eating, due to the need to accumulate nutrients for metamorphosis. Their feeding pattern involves short breaks for molting and digestion, but the majority of their time is spent devouring leaves. Interestingly, research suggests that silkworm moth caterpillars may exhibit a preference for younger, more tender mulberry leaves. This behavior ensures they consume the most nutritious parts of the plant.

Interestingly, the success of the caterpillar's metamorphosis into an adult moth hinges heavily on the amount of nutrients it has stockpiled during its feeding frenzy

The silkworm moth's unique diet plays a crucial role in the very fabric of human history, silk production. The quality and quantity of silk produced are directly linked to the caterpillar's dietary choices.

The mulberry leaves consumed by the silkworm moth caterpillar are not just sustenance; they are the raw material for creating silk. The protein component of mulberry leaves, particularly fibroin, is a key ingredient in the silk produced by the caterpillar. As the caterpillar prepares for metamorphosis, it utilizes the accumulated fibroin to spin the cocoon, a structure composed primarily of silk.

Throughout history, growing mulberry trees has been closely connected to raising silkworms for silk production. Specific types of mulberry trees, like the white mulberry (Morus alba), were chosen because they are especially good at feeding the caterpillars and helping them produce high-quality silk. These mulberry leaves offer the best mix of protein, carbohydrates, and other nutrients needed for silk production. Farmers knew that silkworms fed with high-quality mulberry leaves would produce better silk cocoons, leading to finer and stronger silk fibers.

What Do Silkworm Moths Eat? - What is the main diet of silkworms?

What is the main diet of silkworms moths?

The silkworm moth's life cycle takes an unexpected turn when it reaches the adult stage. Unlike the voracious caterpillar, the adult moth does not eat at all. This surprising behavior is a fascinating evolutionary adaptation.

The most remarkable feature preventing adult silkworm moths from feeding is the absence of functional mouthparts. These structures, vital for most insects to eat, are atrophied and non-functional in adult moths, making feeding impossible.

Although the loss of feeding ability in adult silkworm moths may seem counterintuitive, it is a clever evolutionary strategy. Adult moths have a single, critical purpose, reproduction.

Their lifespan is incredibly short, lasting only a few days. By eliminating the need to find and consume food, the moth can devote its limited energy entirely to finding a mate and laying eggs. This focus on reproduction increases the chances of successful offspring before the moth's inevitable death.

The adult silkworm moth relies entirely on the energy reserves it accumulated during its caterpillar stage. These reserves, primarily proteins and carbohydrates, are meticulously utilized throughout the moth's short adult life. By the end of their brief lifespan, the adult moths have exhausted their reserves and naturally reach the end of their life cycle.

Before you go, be sure to check out this other article, where we explore the different types of silkworms that exist.

What Do Silkworm Moths Eat? - What is the main diet of silkworms moths?

If you want to read similar articles to What Do Silkworm Moths Eat?, we recommend you visit our Facts about the animal kingdom category.

  • Alvarez, J. A. (2000). Effect of feeding stress on the development and cocoon weight of the silkworm Bombyx mori L. (Lepidoptera: Bombycidae).
  • Blaes, N., Couble, P., & Claude Prudhomme, J. (1980). The programming of silk-gland development in Bombyx mori: I. Effects of experimental starvation on growth, silk production, and autolysis during the fifth larval instar studied by electron microscopy . Cell and Tissue Research, 213(2), 311-324.
  • Bosquet, G. (1983). Nutritional and non-nutritional stimulations of protein synthesis in the fat body of Bombyx mori . Insect biochemistry, 13(3), 281-288.
  • Rodríguez-Ortega, A., Martínez-Menchaca, A., Ventura-Maza, A., Vargas-Monter, J., Ehsan, M., & Lara Viveros, FM (2013). Evaluation of mulberry varieties in feeding the silkworm (Bombyx mori) in Hidalgo, Mexico . Mexican Journal of Agricultural Sciences, 4(5), 701-712.
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What Do Silkworm Moths Eat?