Saturday, March 13, 2010

Got a crush on cochineal (not)

If you did not see my last post, first click HERE for the trivia question, then please come back.

Great guesses by those who left a comment, but the A+ grade goes to Erica and Julie. The scale insect in the photo in my last post is actually a bug - unlike most insects that we loosely refer to as bugs. THIS post explained that a bug is a member of insecta hemiptera. The hemiptera in the photo is a scale insect called cochineal. The cochineal is sessile - it stays in one spot like a barnacle. We don't like scale insects because they are not only disgusting in their whitish-gray, waxy armour, but also because as they're silently perched on our plants, they're sucking the life out of them with their beaklike mouthparts. The females (males have wings) stay put, and after mating, will birth tiny nymphs. The nymphs will cover themselves with a whitish waxy substance for protection from rain and sun.

HOWEVER (the excitement builds as the pieces of this gross but fascinating puzzle come together), underneath the waxy whitish substance, the bodies of these insects produce a red pigment that makes the insect's insides appear dark red - carmine to be exact. Fiberists, painters, make-up artists, and observant 7-year olds with a complete Crayola boxes may more quickly connect carmine to the deep darkish red that describes it. Carmine is actually the ground bodies of the cochineal. The cute and quirky presenter in my Master Gardener class on herbs (I only drifted off for a moment, I swear, but somehow in that moment, I missed how the cochineal fell under the topic of herbs), passed around a dish of several cochineal insects that she crushed and added a bit of water to. The color - a rich, beautiful red (flanked by the semi-ground grayish bugs that didn't get a fair mashing!).

You might now make the connection to the British Red Coat photo. Yes, it has been said that the British military dyed their uniforms with the carmine pigment produced by the cochineal, but guess what? Carmine produced from crushed cochineal insects are also used in coloring foods. You and I have probably eaten these bugs. Carmine is used in jams, candy, drinks, sausages, cookies, icing, marinades, gelatin products - you name it. Despite the widespread use, some people can be severely allergic to it, so beginning in January of 2011, the US FDA is requiring all foods containing cochineal to label it as such in the ingredients.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

I did conduct a thorough search for scale insects after my MG class. I thought it'd be cool to crush these guys up and make some ink to show you. I only found a few but it still took every bit of courage to do the mashing with a spoon (this post recalls the time an insect exploded in my face). As the ultimate anti-climax, all I ended up with was crushed brownish-gray scale insect. Turns out the cochineal that produces carmine is a native of South America and Mexico. Though I do hate bugs, I did feel bad about crushing them for no legitimate reason. The scale insects did have their last laugh though as they entered my subconscious in a most horrifying dream - (after making it through the entomology class unscathed!). Shiver!


  1. Interesting info and discovery! Thanks for sharing Wendy. I never knew this before... also dye for cloth and for food as well. This is unique.

  2. entertaining, giggle-inducing post! i read somewhere a figure of roughly how many bugs an ordinary person ingests in a year, and it was shocking (but do you think i can remember? of course not)

  3. I will never eat, drink, or wear anything red ever, ever again.

  4. Wendy~~ And here we thought Red Dye # ? [What was it?] was bad, banned several years ago... Who'd a thunk? Amazing, the things you can learn in the MG classes. Thanks for sharing.

  5. LOL Funny! If you're dying (heh) to experiment more with cochineal, you can purchase it online. Check out eBay in their dye craft section. It can be pretty pricey stuff though. Great post, love all the information!


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