Meet the bugs we smoosh to make natural red dye




I have been fascinated by this stuff since I first visited a cochineal farm in Oaxaca, Mexico many years ago. A little more info here:


I suppose you could follow this with an article on lac bugs – shellac is also used on everything from food to furniture.

People who don’t like thinking about the fact that meat comes from animals REALLY don’t like thinking about how much of our diet is insects, deliberately or accidentally.


They didn’t call that red generic kool-aid “bug juice” for nothin’!


One of my favorite regulations…

Sanitation & Transportation > Defect Levels Handbook
The Food Defect Action Levels
Levels of natural or unavoidable defects in foods
that present no health hazards for humans


I think you and I have very different definitions of “microscopic,” Maggie. It’s not just “tiny,” but so tiny you need a microscope.

I can see things half-a-centimeter long with my bare eyes, just fine.


The rest of this is kind of unclear as well. The blurb says “white cocoons where scale insects live”; the caption says “Cochineal Bug larvae”. So are the larvae ground up to make the dye? Or is it necessary to wait for the cocoons to hatch? Or are the cocoons of some entirely different bug that the scale insects happen to live on? And how exactly are these not “beetles”?


I dyed some yarn with cochineal dye once and the smell of it drove me to distraction. It was sickly sweet and also a little bit like blood (understandable) and it made me nauseous. But it was an interesting process.


Cochineal and lac bugs are scale insects, which are related to things like aphids rather than beetles. They have sucking rather than biting mouth parts, for instance. Another difference is they don’t actually have complete metamorphosis, where larvae go through a dormant pupa stage before becoming adults.

Instead the “cocoons” are a waxy covering adult females make to protect themselves, at which point they become immobile. In fact I gather people originally thought of them as plant structures, which might have to do with why they made dye from them, although snails were popular too long ago. The young nymphs can crawl around, and adult males can fly though don’t live very long.


I’ve ground cochineal up with a mortal and pestle for dyeing. They smell horrible, but the colour is beautiful. They are definitely not beetles, they look more like barnacles than anything else.


This in food would be labeled the catch-all “natural color” on the ingredients list, right? Something for strict vegetarians to be aware of. Although strict vegetarians/vegans usually know more than anyone about that stuff already (bone char used in sugar refinement, isinglass used to clarify wine and beer, etc.)


Yeah, these bugs always seemed preferable to me for food dyes compared to something like Red Dye #6, but I thought they were mostly used for textile dying?


Yeah, shellac was so useful that people were starting to think in terms of giant beetle farms (giant farms; not beetles) to keep up with the demand. Then the various sythetic “space age” materials like Formica basically replaced it. I’ve heard one Old Time Radio show (CounterSpy I think) where the Secret Formula everyone’s chasing after is the Sci-Fi miracle process for synthetic shellac!! A true miracle substance that could possibly tilt the Balance Of World Power!!


Beats the hell out of Red Dye #40 which is nasty stuff. I’ll take bugs any day. Or beets for that matter.


This is why a lot of foods with red dye lack kosher certification symbols.


I read a fantastic popsci book about this topic called “A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire” by Amy Butler Greenfield. I would highly recommend it.


Shellac is an awesome finishing material. At least here in sunny and dry Southern California. It is possible to build a hard beautiful finish in one day, a few hours really. It is also excellent as a barrier layer when doing faux-finishing to preserve the underlying coats from being re-melted by the lacquer top-coats.

and M&Ms


While living in Peru (the largest producer of commercial cochinilla/cochineal, I believe) I heard a rumor that the U.S. had changed it’s rules to allow the use of cochineal to keep meats looking nice and reddish and that this was causing the domestic price of the bugs to skyrocket, negatively effecting the weavers who have been using it to dye traditionally for centuries. Well, a little googling doesn’t quite bear this out (looks like it’s been allowed since 1969 but then required to be labelled in 2009? )

Anywho, I don’t know what caused it, but the price had definitely spiked and the weavers I knew were having to adjust their designs because the huge range of hues they got from cochineal had to be limited, basically all shades of red, maroon, pink and purple plus some blues, lots of oranges and some greens (achieved with different mordants). It’s an amazing and important little bug.


When we saw them in Peru (smooshed one in my palm, it was an attractive shade), our guide said they were popular for cosmetics.


Actually, neither of the images provided shows the reader what the bugs look like. Therefore…