Cochineal – a wealth of color in a small, unassuming creature

If you’ve seen a substance on prickly pear cactus that looks like white cottony fluff and wondered what it was, it’s probably a cluster of cochineal bugs.   The males and females live very different lives.

Female cochineal. (Courtesy of Paula Richards)
Female cochineal.
(Courtesy of Paula Richards)

Upon hatching, the female immediately attaches itself to the cactus, starts sucking and lives out it’s whole life in that one spot.   With a life span of only one week, the males fly off in search of females.   One would not think that such an odd bug would be of interest to anyone other than an entomologist.  However,  the cochineal is the source of a very vibrant red dye from the carminic acid this fascinating bug uses as a defense mechanism.  You may have heard of the British redcoats, or in other historical scenes from China, from the scarlet robes of the Vatican, or even from ancient Rome and Persia.

Pure red! (Courtesy of Paula Richards)
Pure red!
(Courtesy of Paula Richards)

Can you imagine harvesting these little bugs from around the pointy spines of cactus?  At one point in history, the dye was even quoted on the commodity exchanges in London and Amsterdam, and was considered to be worth it’s weight in gold.   Today, it is grown and harvested as a commercial crop, used in food colorings and fabric dyes, and, yes, they are still harvested by hand!