Summer Bugs and Botany: Cochineal Dye Making

It was a rainy day in most of NM, but what a welcome relief to be getting moisture! As we hastily hiked the lower Copper Trails, we noticed the prickly pear seemed to be draped in a more-than-usual white fuzz, and it wasn’t cotton ball shaped but dripping and running down hundreds of cactus pads. Every direction we turned we found nearly every prickly pear to be covered………………….
And then we spotted hundreds of thousands of brilliant scarlet red bodies of the cochineal insect ….. exposed, naked and frantically trying to hold onto their food source, the vertical surfaces of prickly pear pads.  The rain had “melted” their protective coats of fine white wax and the green pads of the cactus looked white washed. 

Opportunity!

I had been reading about these tiny little parasitic scale insects and how their minuscule bodies contain a red pigment that’s foul tasting to would-be predators. That’s good news for the cochineal, but doesn’t prevent human predators from crushing these insects to extract the scarlet dye from their red body fluids.  It was way back in the second century BC that the Aztec and Mayan peoples discovered the dye could be used to color cloth which was widely used to color garments worn by the royal rulers. The Aztecs also used the red dye to color manuscripts.  Peruvians began using cochineal dye as early as 600-1000 CE, and found it works best with animal fibers such as with alpacas, rabbits and feathers. 

Cochineal Insect Biology

Then when the Spanish invaded the new world in the 16th century, they were an awe at how brilliantly colored the royal red robes of Indian rulers were. It was richer and more exquisite than any of their red dyes used at home. They had to have this new rich red dye at all costs! And they did. Enslaving the natives, they were forced to grow and harvest great quantities of cochineal insects (it takes 70,000 insects to make just 1 pound of dye), and then produce the dried ground pigment for shipment abroad. Once the European market discovered the quality of this dye, called Carmine, demand increased dramatically until it became the second most valuable export next to silver. Carmine was so highly prized it’s price was regularly quoted on the London and Amsterdam Commodity exchange in the mid-1500s. By the 17th century, Carmine was actively being traded with India.

Prickly Pear pads covered in fine white wax protecting Cochineal insects

Since our rainy hike had dislodged so many now helpless Cochineal insects, we decided to collect a small sample with the hope of creating some natural dye. Removing the sticky white marshmallow-y goo from cactus pads loaded with spines took great care and patience, and a long stick. It seemed best to stab a wad and twirl the stick then slowly back away from the cactus. (Breathe, 2-3-4). Once a safe distance from the cactus spines, the next challenge was to remove the sticky wax from the stick and deposit it into a vial, without crushing too many bugs.  We kept at it for about an hour, and after getting almost a half inch of material in the vial (and soaking wet), we quit. 

Making Cochineal Dye, Step-by-Step

Watching a score of YouTube videos helped me through the next steps of squishing the bugs (not for the squeamish), creating a slurry for dehydration, then scraping up the dried pigment granules. From here I reconstituted the granules and made a batch of Mother Ink or Ink Stock.  Without the proper additives to ensure color fastness, I experimented with painting the Mother Ink on my journal pages, with very pleasing results. Mostly colors in purples, red-purples, and dusky purples came through. I’m thinking scarlet red dye wasn’t appearing because our tap water is so very hard (due to a water softener malfunction).  But I was able to achieve a Gatorade Orange color when I added a bit of white vinegar to the Mother Ink.  (The orange color only lasted as long as the ink was in solution, then faded back to a red-purple after drying on my journal page ….. curious!). This is where chemistry comes in …… our tap water has a high pH (is very basic), and the vinegar has a very low pH (acidic).  Based on everything I read and watched, this makes sense.  

Squished Cochineal in Ziplock
Straining squished Cochineal to make the slurry
Slurry ready for dehydration
Dehydrated slurry
After scraping Cochineal granules
Cochineal dehydrated granules ready for storage

Someday I may try this experiment again using distilled water, and will have all the additives in hand to create some colorfast dye.

Lastly I was curious about the use of Cochineal in the food and cosmetics industry. Without realizing it, we have all been ingesting these tiny bugs in many food products that are red or orange in color. I’ve been obsessively checking ingredients in processed and packaged foods like marinades, bakery products and toppings, cookies and desserts, juices, jams, gelatin, yoghurt and sauces. Cochineal is also used in the manufacture of lipstick, rouges, blush, certain medications and ointments! If you’re curious, look for ingredients with these kind of words: carminic acid, 1260-17-9, natural red 4, carmine, coccinellin, SanRed 1, C1 Natural Red 4, SunRed, MFCD00167028, 3,5,6,8-Tertahydroxy ………….. 

Are you eating Cochineal?

4 Comments

  1. Absolutely fascinating, Barb! I love the history of this ink. You have been busy – what a process. I have been experimenting with making botanical ink this summer, but using the cochineal insects for ink is ramping it up a notch! It was so interesting learning about your process. I wonder if I have been eating cochneal? Ha! Now that I know the names to look for, I can research. This was such an interesting post and happy you are getting rain (but not about the flash floods)!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, thanks so much for such an enthusiastic response, Karen! This was fun. I’ve been wanting to try making cochineal ink for a few years, and the rainy day provided a perfect opportunity. I also loved the history surrounding this insect, it’s pigment and uses. I read that the dye was used by the British to make their “Red Coats” so red. Pretty cool. I’m trying to find some illuminated manuscripts that were printed and illustrated with cochineal. And when I find some alum and gum Arabic I’m going to try again to see if I can actually get an intense red.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Jean mackay says:

    So fascinating! And what a lot of work. Thanks for sharing the fruits of your labors.

    Like

    1. Thanks tremendously Jean! Talking about getting back to the basics ….. of early nature-meets-chemistry. I’m planning to give this a try again after our next rain especially since the entire process only took a bit more than a day.

      Like

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