Cochineal, The Little Red Bug

Have you ever noticed that some prickly pear pads around town have white fuzzy stuff on them? Under the fuzzy stuff, which is a waxy web, is a little red bug called a Cochineal. Scientific name: (Dactylopius cocus)

The story of the Cochineal is fascinating and you may often use something it produces.

When the Spaniards first came to Mexico in the early 1500s, they sought gold. They also found another substance which became just as valuable: a substance that would lead to a world-wide commercial monopoly, a substance that was the object of international industrial espionage; and a substance which caused them to import prickly pear cacti to Spain.

When Hernan Cortes came to Mexico in 1523, he noticed that the natives were wearing brilliant red clothing. He also saw that the color didn’t fade upon washing. He found the perfect red dye, something Europeans had been seeking for centuries. Where did this remarkable dye come from?

The cochineal is a scale insect which feeds on the juices of the prickly pear. To protect itself from the sun, it spins a waxy, white web. To protect itself from predators, mainly ants, it produces Carminic Acid, a very bitter-tasting substance. And carminic acid is the best natural red dye there is.

Female cochineals are dark red, wingless, legless, and sessile (attached to the plant and sedentary). Males resemble small pink and white gnats.

Males undergo complete metamorphoses and develop into winged adults. Females, however, remain in a prolonged larval stage, never changing into winged adults, but becoming sexually mature nonetheless.

The young females settle near their mother in groups and secrete the fluffy wax which protects them from desiccation. Each female sticks its tube-like proboscis into the cactus pad and draws nutrients from the cactus throughout its three-year life-span. Within a few weeks of hatching, the female becomes bloated and sexually mature – a silvery, purplish balloon, similar to a fully engorged tick. When home sites become too crowded, the young females use web material to ride the wind to another pad.

The male cochineal remains tiny and mobile. After a few weeks, he spins a cocoon-like structure and transforms himself into a tiny, soft-bodied, delicate-winged flyer. The male lacks mouth parts, and is programed for one thing, sex, and that he pursues by moving rapidly among the cactus pads and mating with as many females as possible before he dies within about a week.

To produce dye, the bugs are harvested, dried, and boiled. The material to be dyed is placed in vats of the mixture and the color is fixed with oxalic acid obtained from juices of several plants including the cacti themselves.

The Spaniards knew a good thing when they saw it. Cochineal dye was so good, that the bugs and cacti were exported to Spain and to Spanish colonies in South America, and the dye soon took over the market. That, incidentally is why you can find prickly pear cactus in Europe.

For almost 300 years, Spain had a monopoly in Cochineal dye and they strictly controlled the source. One of their best customers was the British Army. The Redcoats red came from the cochineal.

The French didn’t like this and constantly tried to get some of the little red bugs. Finally, in 1787, a French naturalist manage to smuggle Cochineal-laded cacti out of Mexico to Haiti where they too began producing the dye. In the 1870s, the English managed to get some cactus and cochineal, and tried to grow them in India.

Cochineal dye is still produced in Mexico, Spain, and South America.

Red dye from the Cochineal is not used much for clothing any more since it has been replaced by synthetic dyes. However, Cochineal dye is widely used in cosmetics and in food coloring. It is non-toxic and non-carcinogenic. Read the labels of any red food product. If you see the word Carmine (or sometimes cochineal), then the red color comes from the mashed remains of the little red bug that lives under the white fuzz dotting prickly pear pads.

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4 comments

  1. Fascinating and informative – I was aware of the insect, but not aware of it’s importance in history and trade.

  2. I really enjoyed this article. It kept my attention, which is hard to do these days (lol). Very informative.
    Incidentally, about a year ago I saw a white beetle-type bug in my yard. It had red stripes. I only saw one and haven’t seen one since. It was about the size of a ladybug, only had a more oblong shape. Any idea what this bug is? I’ve been curious ever since I saw the little creature.

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