The Bug That Changed History


   Surprise Valley. July. You’re running sweep on the Tapeats/Thunder River/Deer Creek hike. Conversation at the back of the pack is running something like this: “We’re surprised all right. We’re surprised how hot and dry and stupid it is up here!” Yep, they’re suffering from heat frustration, and you’re still miles away from the boats at Deer Creek. Resting at the Big Shade Rock, the glum crunching of a granola bar is the only sound. You think: “I need to divert attention away from blistered feet, achy joints, and sunburns. I need a long, entertaining story.” Tell them the tale of the cochineal insect, a bug that changed world history.

   The cochineal is found in many Colorado River side canyons, appearing on prickly pear cactus pads inside matchhead-sized white fuzzballs. When you find some of these, carefully pull one off. Go ahead and mash it. The brilliant red insect bodies now staining your fingertips have been processed by New World cultures for thousands of years, and used to color everything from warriors’ shields to their own bodies. By the 14th century, the Incas and Aztecs both had whole agricultural systems based on cochineal, and apparently valued the dye as much as gold.

   At the same time in Europe, the best red colorings were made from another insect, a pest of oak trees called kermes, which was dried, ground up and dissolved in water. Neolithic cave paintings in France, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the wrappings of Egyptian mummies were all tinted with this dye. Compared to cochineal however, kermes tints look dull and faded. So when Cortes invaded Mexico in 1519, he was amazed to find Montezuma and other nobles dressed in robes dyed a brilliant, vivid red. He was also amazed to see the native women’s hands and breasts painted the same intense color. In Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) he found bags of dried cochineal sent as tribute to Montezuma, which were promptly shipped back to Spain. The dye was so much brighter than kermes it was almost instantly in high demand. By 1600, cochineal was second only to silver as the most valuable import from Mexico.

   Around 1630, it was discovered that treating cochineal with an acidic tin solution made it bind much better to fabric and even brighter in color, the first scarlet as we now know it. Because of its expense and scarcity, scarlet cloth quickly became associated with money and power. Roman Catholic Card Cardinals robes were made from it as were the jackets of the British military.

   The Revolutionary War in which American colonists fought against these “Redcoats” was brought on not only by British taxes on tea, but also by heavy taxes on cochineal, which could easily have been imported directly from Mexico by the Colonies.

   In addition to dye for fabric, cochineal became widely used as a food coloring. Cakes, cookies, beverages, jam, jelly, ice cream, sausages, pies, dried fish, yogurt, cider, maraschino cherries and tomato products were brightened with it as were chewing gum, pills and cough drops. Cosmetic rouge was developed with cochineal as the main ingredient. But while ever more diverse uses were found for cochineal, it’s origin remained a mystery.

   Most Europeans thought it was extracted from berries or cereals because the dried insects looked like grains of wheat. This misconception was promoted by the Spanish, who had launched a brutal cover-up of the dye making process as soon as they realized cochineal’s potential. Many New World natives unfortunate enough to have chosen a career in red dye production were simply put to death. Access to cochineal farms was tightly controlled, but eventually French and Dutch adventurers succeeded in smuggling out live cactus pads covered with the insects. Cochineal “ranches” were started in dozens of countries in North Africa, the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. Prickly pear and cochineal did particularly well in the Canary Islands where whole farms and vineyards were cleared and converted to cactus plantations. In 1868, the Canaries exported six million pounds of cochineal, equivalent to 420 billion insects.

   This time period proved to be the peak of the cochineal industry as new synthetic dyes in a variety of fade-resistant colors rapidly superseded it. By the 1880s cochineal production was in steep decline. A major crisis in Spanish financial markets ensued, as a key 250 year-old industry failed within the span of a couple of decades.

   Though not in high demand today, cochineal is used in medical tracers, artists’ paints and microscopy stains. It is currently the only natural red food coloring authorized by the FDA. Unfortunately, workers harvesting cochineal now are not much safer than those laboring under the Spanish 200 years ago. The world’s primary growing area, Peru, is threatened by ongoing political instability and violence. Conditions are so sketchy that the insects are usually gathered at night. Revealing where his concerns lay, one cochineal importer noted: “There’s high mortality in working staff right now, so supplies are a bit tight.”

   By now, if you’ve dragged the story out adequately, the boats should be in sight. If so, wrap up your tale on this note: as food producers continue to switch back to natural colorings, more and more of the stuff we eat and drink will be dyed with dead bugs. But at least the red color won t have originated as some awful synthetic brew in a General Foods chemistry lab.

Jeff Behan