Dactylopius coccus (Cochineal)

Violet, red, and purple have been the colors royalty, worn by kings and queens. Until the Spanish conquered parts of the New World, these color dyes were difficult to obtain. Purple dye came from crushing murex snails and yet a vibrant red was elusive. Yet Aztec and Mixtec had been domesticating insects since around 2000 BC in the regions around Puebla, Tlaxcala, and Oaxaca, Mexico. The insect Carmine cochineal of the Coccidae family feeds exclusively on the Opuntia ficus-indica cactus (prickly pear). The Spanish conquistadors extracted precious metals from the New World, and yet as highly prized were the cochineal insects for dyes. Aztecs and other native people created rich fuchsia to red to violet dyes. The Spanish maintained the dye’s secret ingredient until competitors caught on, and quickly grew opuntia in India, South Africa, Ceylon, and Australia. The opuntia thrived and took over in these climes but the cochineal usually died out.

Carminic acid in cochineal body fluid is an anti-predator toxin and has a foul taste, though gives insects in the Dactylopius genus a reddish hue. Females are gathered from cacti, killed, and reduced to powder and used as dye. Cochineal is still used in cosmetics, beverages and candles and in small quantities, and is non-toxic to humans compared to other red dyes which are often carcinogenic.

Elizabeth Oriel 2022