When European pirates and buccaneers first sailed to South America in the sixteenth century they went primarily in search of gold. But they soon found they could also swell their coffers by bringing back indigenous herbs and shrubs which could be used to make medicines, spices and clothing dyes. Records show that when Sir Francis Drake sailed to Mexico in 1577 he went in search, not only of gold, but also of cochineal, a natural crimson dye which was first imported into Europe by the Spanish conquistadores, whom the Incas had bribed with bags of precious cochineal. This dye is obtained from the cochineal insect (Dactylopus coccus), a parasite which feeds on the moisture and nutrients it draws from the leaves of cacti belonging to the Opuntia family. These cacti flourish in warm countries. Their native habitat is Mexico and Peru, and for many years these two countries had the monopoly of the production of the dye, which the Europeans called ‘carmine’ and treasured highly because
it didn’t discolour in the sun. Cochineal is one of the few water-soluble colorants that resists degradation, and is even more stable than many modern synthetic dyes. This was the precious dye which quickly became South America’s most valuable export after silver. When transported to Europe it was used to colour the brilliant crimson ball gowns of the Renaissance ladies of fashion, and also to create the dramatic red costumes of the British soldiers of the line.
Several attempts were made to break the monopoly, by smuggling the beetle out of South America. The most successful was staged in 1788 by a British army officer, who managed to take an infected cactus from Brazil to Australia, where he planned to set up a cochineal farm in Botany Bay. His venture failed because the beetle couldn’t tolerate the local climate. This was not true of the plant, which loved its new habitat and quickly spread to infest a vast swathe of eastern Australia. Just as myxomatosis had to be introduced to kill the rabbit, another alien species which the Ozzie’s imported into their fertile country, so they had to import a South African moth to decimate the Opuntia cactus. It was only the tumult caused by the Mexican War of Independence that brought the monopoly to an end, and allowed the Opuntia cactus to be brought to the Canary islands, where it has flourished ever since.
Anyone visiting the rural areas of Lanzarote will find masses of Opuntia cactci, many of which will display characteristic white blebs on their prickly, bladed leaves. These are the homes of the cochineal insect, which look white because the creatures in their larval stage secrete a waxy white substance which protects their bodies from water loss and excessive exposure to the sun. As they mature, these young nymphs produce long wax filaments and gradually migrate to the edge of the cactus where they’re carried by the wind to find a new host. The cochineal, derived by crushing these insects, is nowadays used primarily as a food colorant. It’s also employed to colour pills, ointments and cosmetics like lipsticks, face powders, rouges and blushes. When synthetic dyes like alizarin were developed in the late nineteenth century the demand for cochineal plummeted. Since then, health fears regarding the use of artificial food additives – some of which have been found to be carcinogenic – have renewed the popularity of cochineal. But, as people don’t like to think they’re eating beetle’s blood, it’s generally described on product labels as carmine, natural food colorant or E120.
The only two drawbacks are that cochineal is four to five times more expensive than synthetic dyes. This is largely because its production is labour intensive. It takes about 155,000 insects to make a kilogram of cochineal, and each of these tiny creatures has to be gathered by hand, being individually knocked, brushed or picked from the cactus and then gathered in a bag. The other snag is that cochineal may not be unacceptable to strict vegetarians, or to orthodox Muslims and Jews for whom it’s creepy-crawly origins makes it a proscribed, non-kosher foodstuff.