Paint It Red: Cochineal, the Wonder Bug

Lipstick. Strawberry Frappuccino. Pirate booty. Navajo rugs. British Redcoats. They’re all connected.

 Lipstick — just one place to find cochineal. Photo courtesy pawpaw67 @ flickr

Lipstick — just one place to find cochineal. Photo courtesy pawpaw67 @ flickr

 
 

Lipstick. Strawberry Frappuccino. Pirate booty. Navajo rugs. British Redcoats. They’re all connected.

A tiny shriveled bit of matter gives them all their distinctive and highly desirable red color. And, although it had a name, until the microscope was invented, nobody outside Mexico knew what that little dried thing called Cochineal really was.

 Dried cochineal. Is it a bug? A berry?

Dried cochineal. Is it a bug? A berry?

Red is a big deal

Red is a big deal. It’s the color of both fire and blood. Not to be taken lightly.

But, making a dye or a pigment that would create a lasting, true red that matched the vivid red of our imaginations was impossible for a very long time.

For thousands of years people crushed bits of plants and animals, heated them, fermented them in urine, and boiled them in metal cauldrons with nasty chemicals like mercury salts to create dyes. The results? Dirty yellows, browns, dull greens and blues, most of which washed out and faded long before the fabric was worn. Madder, a common plant in Europe, made an adequate red, but a bright, lasting, true red dye just didn’t exist.

Then Spain colonized the New World and everything changed.

The people of Mexico raised a domesticated version of an insect pest that lived on the prickly pear (nopal) cactus in their garden plots. Harvested, and dried (preferably in the sun), the bodies of these insects produced the red dye the world was longing for. Its name is Cochineal.

Delicate as hothouse orchids

The bugs are delicate, and need careful tending. Young cochineal insects find a nice nopal paddle, stick their straw-like mouthpiece into the plant, and settle in to drink cactus nectar for the rest of their lives. The farmers carefully tend to their cochineal, sweeping away predators like ants and moths and sheltering the cactus from cold and rain.

 Cochineal at home on a nopal paddle. Photo courtesy Cuandera Vision @ flickr

Cochineal at home on a nopal paddle. Photo courtesy Cuandera Vision @ flickr

When the bugs are big enough they are harvested by hand. In the Aztec documents the preferred tool is a turkey feather or a deer tail. Today, harvesters use a paintbrush or a small palette knife.

The red that cochineal yielded was worth all the work. It takes 70,000 insects to make a pound of dye. But, it’s ten times stronger than anything known before. The first samples of cochineal reached the Spanish court in 1523. Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, recognized the value of a robust red dye, and ordered that every effort be made to import the novel dyestuff. As the appetite in Europe grew for cochineal, Spain’s monopoly paid off. Only silver exports produced more income for the crown. Eventually the Spanish would ship as much as 300,000 pounds from their New World possessions to Seville every year.

Pirate booty

The English loved the new red. Suffolk alone imported 40,000 pounds of cochineal in the early 17th century, nearly 15% of the world’s supply. But cochineal was very expensive, and legal imports were not the whole story. English pirates and privateers targeted ships carrying cochineal. In some years, they captured 10% of the Spanish shipments.

Red cochineal wool from English mills became the favorite color for military uniforms across Europe. Textile masters in Venice and Genoa produced sumptuous red silks and velvets, coveted by those who could afford such luxuries. The new color was so popular that nobles flaunted their wealth and taste by decking themselves out in red, head to toe, when having a portrait painted.

 Freshly ground cochineal.

Freshly ground cochineal.

And today? Synthetic dyes meet many of our color needs. Red is still a favorite color. In industry-made fabric, the dye is not likely to be cochineal, but hand-weavers, especially in Latin America, are rediscovering the beauty of cochineal and using it in their work.

Tastes like red

Cochineal never really went away. It just moved into new roles. Peru now exports more cochineal than it did at the height of the Spanish empire. The Canary Islands support a large cochineal industry. Although cochineal is uncommon in textiles, it is still embedded in our lives. You’ll find it in red lipsticks, red pharmaceuticals, red velvet cake, and yes, strawberry Frappuccinos. If you see natural red 4 on a food label, you have found cochineal. If the idea of ground-up insect parts coloring your favorite dessert seems a bit off-putting, remember, it’s got a long history of safety compared to synthetic dyes. And, thanks to the insight and patience of Aztec farmers, our world became a little rosier.

Want to know more about these amazing bugs?
Try these books:

A Perfect Red by Amy Butler Greenfield
A Red Like No Other by Carmella Padilla and Barbara Anderson