Cochineal Red: Red Dye Derived from Insects
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Cochineal Red: Red Dye Derived from Insects

Natives of the Americas used an insect called the Cochineal (Dactylopius coccus) to produce a crimson red dye powder called carmine. This is also the source of red in British Red Coats coloration from the 1700-1800s.

Red and Crimson Dye (Carmine) Derived from Cochineal Insects

The Cochineal insect is a small parasitic sap-loving insect that feeds primarily upon the sap of certain cacti. These insects are sessile which means they are unable to move about. The live as a bump or pearl upon the plant (also called a scale.)

These insects and their related cousins live in different location around the globe, from South America and Mexico to Eurasia. A type of Cochineal insect can be found in Poland and was the source of the coveted crimson red fabric dye, but the introduction of Mexican cochineal in the 16th century made harvesting the local variety not as lucrative due to the labor intensive harvesting required. A great many insects must be processed to produce any useful amount of the highly prized red dye extract. It requires about 70,000 or more dried cochineal insects to produce just one pound of dye.

The insect as a defense against predation produces carminic acid which is the substance extracted and mixed with either aluminum or calcium salts to produce cochineal (carmine dye.) Carmine is still used today for food coloring and in some cosmetics although other sources have replaced its use. Because of sensitive skin and allergic reaction concerns to some modern and synthetic ingredients in cosmetics and food coloring, research is reexamining the use of insect-derived carmine as a potential non-allergic non-irritant colorant again. In the past, other uses of the crimson dye were for coloring fibers (yucca, woolen and other animal fibre, etc.) that would later be woven into rugs, made into other textiles, and for painting and decoration of household items like pottery. The cochineal dye set more firmly and brilliantly to fibres than other dyes then in use, which added to its allure.

There are main forms of Cochineal dye; the cochineal extract which is a coloring agent made directly from the dried and pulverized bodies of harvest insect, and carmine which is modified Cochineal dye. The latter is boiled in either ammonia or a solution of sodium carbonate and filtered. Alum is added which causes red aluminum salts to precipitate out of solution. Various other shades of color can be derived from carmine by the addition of various acids or alkalies. Colors such as orange, scarlet and purple can be created by tweaking the various ingredients added in different stages of the process of refining. Purple is especially coveted by royalty of the times for its rarity.

Indian, collecting cochineal insect larvae to make crimson red dye

(image source)

Mexico was the major producer of this dye by the labor of the Oaxaca natives and this became the second most valuable Mexican export after silver.

Demand for this product increased and it was after the conquest of the Aztec Empire by Spain that the product was traded openly as a commodity. It became so valuable and highly sought that the dye was even listed on both the London and Amsterdam Commodity Exchange based upon demand and supply.

The British 'Red Coat' Color is Derived of the Cochineal Insect Dye.

British 'Red Coat' Uniform, colored with the cochineal insect-derived dye

(image source)

The Cochineal Insects

cochineal sessile (non-moving) insects drinking sap from a cactus pad, they are the source of cochineal red dye

(image source)

Although these sessile insects look like little pearly-white dots attached to the cactus pad, the insects themselves are of a dark purple color. The nymphs exude a white waxy substance (scale) which acts as a protection from the hot sunlight as well and perhaps mainly to prevent water-loss, and it affixes them to the cactus pad itself except where their pincher-like mouths bite into and drink the juices of the host cactus. The hatched nymphs feed upon the sap and juices of the cactus until maturity, and the males upon maturity lose the ability to feed and they die short after mating. Typically, only the females are ever seen due to this and probably other factors that favor the female which greatly outnumber the male. The females don't even have wings. Only the males have wings, and are much smaller than the female.

Attempts in the late 1700s to farm the Cochineal insects in Australia failed, but the cactus that was also imported as their host flourished and eventually overran parts of eastern Australia. In turn, these invasive floras were brought under control by the introduction of yet another non-native species, the South American Moth Cactoblastis cactorum. As you might guess from the suggestive Latin nomenclature, they (the larvae) eat cactus.

Cochineal dyes although natural do have contraindications; some people have had allergic reactions to this colorant which is labeled as E120 on the products ingredients. Cochineal dye and extract has been shown to cause mild hives, asthma in some people to greater dangers such as atrial fibrillation, anaphylactic shock in a very small number of people. Vegetarian and Vegan consumers do not use products that contain cochineal dye because of the harm (death) to the insects in order to produce the product. Some religious sects declare cochineal dye forbidden as well, while other religious groups such as the Jewish religion consider it allowed because the insect in reduced to a powder to extract the necessary color. This is deemed not to be the same as consuming or using the insect directly, an act which would be considered to be non-Kosher (unclean.)

Use of carmine colorant is extensive. It can be found in alcoholic drinks in the form of calcium carmine, it is in meat and sausages (only if so labeled in the U.S can meats legally have colorants added,) marinades, pie filling colorant, jams, gelatin, and some dairy products such as some forms of cheeses, cookies and cake mixes, more. Starbuck's Coffee recently was shown to be using Chocineal Red Dye in their Strawberry Flavored Frappuccino drinks.

According to source, Coca-Cola revealed in 2009 that the colorant natural dye carmine is obtained from dried cochineal source. Yes, the color used comes from cochineal insects.

No Cochineal Insects were harmed in the writing of the article

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Comments (9)

excellent, you are a great writer

The island of Tenerife where I live is covered in cactii. It is only recently when I went out with visiting family on a special tour that I learned the cactii were not naturally present in such numbers but were cultivated for the benefit of the cochineal bug... red gold. Very interesting background ST, thank you.

P.S. weird top thumbnail for this article.

Yes Julie, -I did not choose this thumbnail. Sometimes a thumbnail is chosen seemingly randomly or inappropriately. I'm not bothered by it though. On another writing site however, an article about say, collecting gemstones and pretty rocks will generate a 'random thumbnail' showing a prison hard-labor gang in black-&-white strips pounding rocks with sledge hammers... totally way off subject..

Ricardo Cardenes

Julie: the Canary Islands' climate served in the past for a number of this "cultures" (banana is just the most recent, but it's seen sugarcane, etc).

The cochineal bug ("cochinilla") was pervasive during part of the XVIII century through, at least, Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote and La Palma, where you still can see large numbers of nopal cacti (and each island has a differente name for it!), sometimes covered by the bugs :).

It was a rather lucrative business, with peak exports of a few thousand metric tons per year, until the introduction of anilines. Currently, it's only collected in an artisanal way, and Lanzarote was the only island with an important production at the end of XXth century.

Some info about the cochineal bug in Canary Islands (sorry, only in Spanish), here: You can see there that the exports just in 1874 were valued in the order of millions of £ (libras).

Thank you, Ricardo that is interesting. The Spanish leader of our little trip collected some of the bugs in a plastic bag and shook them in water which immediately turned a deep red. Obviously an effective dye for the time. I wrote an article about the fruit of the cactii for a Tenerife online magazine although I am not sure if Stickman would appreciate us using his article for posting links. :) I may blog about the cochineal bug and link back to the article you pointed too and to The Stickman's excellent background material.


Could we have some citations for the information about allergies, asthma , anaphylactic shock, and atrial fibs? Thanks,

Very unique article in terms of subject and content. This dye must have been in high demand during it's conception considering it's multiple uses. If it's natural, I'm all for using it for clothing and such. Great food for thought. Well written, too. Great work.

re: "....although I am not sure if Stickman would appreciate us using his article for posting links. " -Because the link is related, and useful, it serves the article for better documentation, more reading, and greater SEO value. Appreciated!