100 Years – 100 Objects: Muga Silk Moth

December 15, 2009

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 – meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

This description is from Nancy, the museum’s director of the Cockrell Butterfly Center and curator of entomology. She’s chosen a selection of objects that represent the rarest and most interesting insects in the Museum’s collections,that we’ll be sharing here – and at 100.hmns.org– throughout the year.

Muga Silk Moth – Antheraea assamensis

Muga Silk Moth - Antheraea assamensis resize

This large moth from the lowland forests of India and Burna is related to our polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus), the most common giant silk moth in Houston.  Here the smaller male, with brushier antennae, is shown on the left, the female on the right.  Muga silk moths are not particularly spectacular or endangered, but they are the source of a very special, very expensive fabric called Muga or Muga silk.

Muga silk moth caterpillars eat leaves of trees in the laurel and magnolia families.  The silk with which they construct their cocoon when pupating is a rich amber color.  Silk “farmers” care for the caterpillars, moving them from tree to tree until they are ready to pupate.  The caterpillars pupate inside small boxes made of twigs provided by the farmers, who then harvest the cocoons, unwinding them to make silk thread that is woven into a luxurious fabric.  For 600 years, muga silk was worn only by the kings and noble families of the Assam state in northern India and was unknown to the outside world, until it was discovered by a French traveler to the area in 1692.  Today muga silk is available from specialty shops, but is very expensive.  It is used to make fine saris and other garments.

The silk fabric made from muga silk moth cocoons does not need to be bleached or dyed, but has a natural shimmering golden color that becomes more lustrous the more it is washed.  Muga silk is extremely strong and durable (garments often outliving their owners), as well as being stain resistant and absorbing moisture, making it very comfortable to wear.

The muga silk “industry” continues to be mostly the domain of small, local farmers, unlike the hugely industrialized production of the more common mulberry silk (from Bombyx mori, an unrelated moth species).

Learn more about moths and their relatives in a visit to the new Brown Hall of Entomology, a part of the Cockrell Butterfly Center– a living, walk-through rainforest at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

You can see more images of this fascinating artifact – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the 100 Objects section at 100.hmns.org

Authored By Nancy Greig

Dr. Nancy Greig is the founding director of the Cockrell Butterfly Center, which she oversaw from 1994 to 2016. As emeritus director she continues to work with the museum doing outreach and education. Her academic training is in botany and entomology, with a specialty in the interaction between insects, especially butterflies, and plants. In addition to cultivating backyard butterflies, she grows vegetables and bees

4 responses to “100 Years – 100 Objects: Muga Silk Moth”

  1. Joyce says:

    Nancy, does the museum have this or any of the silk moths + cocoons on the lower level of the Hall of Entomology? I’d like my kids to see them the next time we’re there; they love their silk scarves!

    Also . . . we are planning on overwintering a couple generations of painted lady butterflies (from mail-order larvae). I notice that many of the butterflies in the Butterfly Center enjoy feeding off of what looks like a yellow scouring pad unrolled and set over a red plastic party plate. Is it really that simple? Our trips to the Butterfly Center have inspired us!

  2. Nancy says:

    Hi Joyce,

    Thanks so much for your message! I am not sure that we have any silk moth cocoons on display (that was an oversight!) but if you ask one of the docents on the floor of the butterfly center next time you are here, he or she may be able to show you the empty cocoons of the Atlas moths we sometimes get in shipments from our butterfly supplier in Malaysia. You can see several species of giant silk moth (mounted) in the upstairs portion of the entomology hall, in the Butterfly vs. Moth display. You can also order caterpillars and cocoons of Bombyx mori from Carolina Biological Supply, if you want to see what “normal” silk comes from.

    As far as the feeding stations go, yes, we use red or yellow plastic plates/bowls with a contrasting (yellow or red) plastic scrubbing pad. The color is to mimic a flower; butterflies see color well, and seem to “like” the bright colors best – that’s why flowers are so pretty. The scrubber also gives them something to land on so they don’t drown in the artificial nectar we provide. “Artificial nectar” is a bit of a glorified term – it is basically what you would make up for your hummingbird feeder: 1 part sugar dissolved in 4 parts water. We add a little bit of body builder’s protein supplement (amino acids) to make it “healthier” – there are traces of amino acids in flower nectar. I like to say we give our butterflies gatorade rather than coca-cola… (but don’t do this for hummingbirds – our solution ferments quickly). In a backyard garden situation, where there are plenty of flowers, I doubt butterflies would come to a feeder – but you could try – and let me know what happens! We provide the feeders in the Butterfly Center because we have so many butterflies, and cannot maintain enough flowering material to feed them all. You may have also noticed the feeders containing ripe fruit. Some butterflies do not visit flowers, but get their sustenance from fallen, overripe fruit or tree sap. There are a few local butterflies (e.g., red admirals, hackberry and tawny emperors, goatweed butterflies) that can be attracted by a nice rotten banana (split the skin open) – but these species are usually found in wooded areas rather than open sunny gardens.

    Thanks again for your questions and I hope you and your family will come again soon! It’s wonderful to hear that you have been inspired by your visits to the Buttrfly Center.

    Happy holidays,

  3. Joyce says:

    Nancy, thanks for your help. We got our feeding stations set up over the weekend, and just in time–the adults started emerging yesterday! And yes, I think we’ll have to raise Bombyx mori next . . .

  4. Nancy says:

    Hi Joyce,

    I hope you, your family, and your butterflies had a good holiday! What happened – did the painted ladies use the feeding stations? It hasn’t been a very good winter for outdoor butterflies – unusually cold, and that snowfall killed off a lot of the nectar source. I hope everything turned out all right for you!

    Happy New Year!

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