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Carmine Dye and the Cochineal Insect

What was the first item of commerce to be exported from the New World to the Old? No, not corn. Not rubber. It was bug juice.

At least in a manner of speaking. When Hernan Cortez came to America in 1518 he was intrigued by the beautifully coloured Aztec fabrics, particularly the stunning reds. He asked the natives about the source of the colorant and was shown some specks on a cactus plant. Closer scrutiny revealed that the little specks were actually little bugs. Today we know them as Dactylopius coccus, or simply as cochineal. The dye that can be extracted from these insects is called carmine. Montezuma was so fond of it that he imposed a tax upon his subjects that had to be paid in dried cochineal bugs.

Carmine went over big in Europe. Wool and silk were dyed with it, but perhaps the most memorable use of cochineal red was in the brilliant scarlet colours for which the Gobelin tapestries of Paris became famous. Producing the dye was not an easy business. It is the female insects that feed on the red cactus berries and concentrate the dye in their bodies and in that of their unhatched larvae. They are scraped off the cactus and are dumped into hot water where they instantly die. Their corpses are then dried in the sun and crushed into a powder. This can then be added to water or to a water-alcohol mixture to produce “bug juice” for dying purposes. A mordant such as alum, which binds the colour to fabrics is often used.

Carminic acid, the active colouring agent, is one of the safest dyes that exist and is commonly used in foods and cosmetics. Candies, ice cream, beverages, yogurt, lipstick and eye shadow can all be coloured with cochineal. Allergies are possible but are rare. There have been reports about reactions to Campari, pink popsicles, maraschino cherries or red lipstick, but these are less frequent than reactions to other components in foods and cosmetics. In one instance, a little boy’s face swelled after being kissed by his loving grandmother. It seems he had been sensitized to carmine, probably through food or candies, and reacted to the colouring in the lipstick. Obviously, he will have to be careful in the future when he becomes involved in romantic escapades. Reactions to carmine tend to be in the form of hives and swelling although one case of anaphylactic reaction to Campari-Orange has been reported.

The cochineal insects are very small. It takes about 70,000 females to produce a pound of dye. The males are quite useless in this respect. They are also rare and live for only a week, just long enough to mate with as many females as possible. And how are they separated? The males can fly but the wingless females cannot. When the cactus is disturbed, the males scoot, but the females cannot escape. They are scraped off, destined to colour our cherry or strawberry ice cream. Some people may not find the prospect of ice cream coloured with bug juice appetizing, but cochineal red is an effective and safe dye…most of the time.


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