Domestic Silk Moth

Bombycidae, Bombyx mori. Spanish: Gusano de seda (larva). Portuguese: Bicho da seda (Brazil, larva).

Little needs to be said regarding this species as a part of the Neotropical fauna. It is a totally domesticated animal, cultured since ancient times in the Orient for the production of silk, and quite incapable of surviving without intense human protection and care.

The species has been introduced into various parts of Latin America repeatedly by capitalists with visions of establishing profitable industries. For a variety of reasons, most often the high cost of maintaining cultures and processing the fiber in this labor-intensive endeavor, no scheme has long succeeded or survives today.

A history of sericulture in Latin America has not yet been written in full, al though events in Mexico are well known (Borah 1943). The first seed was brought apparently by the Spaniards to Hispaniola in the opening years of the sixteenth century. Cortés introduced the moth to Mexico in 1523 where the silk industry was encouraged and where, aided by cheap Indian labor, it thrived. Political and economic competition from the Old World brought on a decline even before the end of the century from which it never recovered, in spite of revival by the Bourbon rule in the early 1800s. Introductions to other countries followed separately and at disparate times (see Lamas and Lamas 1980, for Peru, and Adames 1945, for Brazil).

It is a curious fact that Cortés was presented a silken cloth by Moctezuma which was made from a so-called native silk (seda silvestre, seda de la mixteca), called temictli (or icheatzin, xochiaietlan). Silk textile manufacture was already practiced by the Aztecs in central Mexico, the material being obtained from two indigenous lepi-dopterous species (Cowan 1865, Hoffman 1910). One was a lasiocampid moth (Gloveria psidii = Sagana sapotoza) with large hairy caterpillars that spun an enormous baglike, silken nest among the limbs of the host, guayaba or "encino" (Psidium gua-java), from which they wander to feed. Pupation takes place in a small tight cocoon in the middle of the nest.

The other silk producer was the ma-drone butterfly (mariposa del madroño), Eucheira socialis, a pierid. The larvae are likewise gregarious and construct a compact whitish tissue like a bag of silk among the branches of the madrone (Arbutus) tree. They seek refuge in this sac during the day, leaving at night to eat leaves. The chrysalids are attached inside the bag.

In both cases, the Aztec artisans cut up the large sacs, piecing together the resulting swatches into larger pieces of "fabric." The fibers composing them were not unwound and woven into textiles as with the cocoons of Bombyx mori or other wild sa-turniid types, such as Rothschildia (see window-winged moths, above).

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