From Cacti to Crisis: The Remarkable Saga of Red Dye Made from Bugs

Alright, let’s dive into something you probably didn’t see coming: red dye made from bugs! Yes, you heard that right. For centuries, people have been using cochineal bugs, tiny critters that chill on prickly pear cactuses, to create this stunning red dye known as carmine.

Now, before you go “ew, bugs in my food?”, hear me out because this is pretty fascinating.

This surprising use of insects has not only colored the fabric of history but also positioned Mexico as a powerhouse in dye production, with carmine being the country’s second most valuable export in the 17th century.

Today, however, this fascinating tradition stands at a crossroads, with the ancestral practice of bug-based dye making facing potential extinction in Mexico.

The Cool Side of Bug-Based Dye: A Healthier & Sustainable Choice

holding cochineal powder

These little bugs, when processed, give us carmine and cochineal extract, and the magic ingredient here is carminic acid. This is what gives that gorgeous red hue to a bunch of stuff, from your favorite strawberry yogurt to those candies you can’t resist.

And the best part? It’s been around for ages, coloring everything from textiles to artworks.

But here’s the kicker: with the rise of synthetic dyes, our little bug friends were kind of pushed to the side. That is until people started realizing that those synthetic options might not be the best for our health. I mean, who wants to risk hyperactivity in kids or potential cancer risks, right? So, natural dyes like carmine made a comeback.

Nowadays, carminic acid is making waves in the food industry, adding a pop of color to a variety of products. And while the idea of eating something made from bugs might give you the heebie-jeebies, the reality is that the amount of insect left in the final product is tiny.

Plus, many food products are considered safe even if they have small amounts of bugs in them.

But here’s where it gets really cool: scientists are now looking at ways to produce carminic acid using genetic engineering. Imagine that – a sustainable, efficient, and potentially cheaper way to make this vibrant dye, all while catering to the growing number of folks looking for non-animal based products.

And while there have been some reports of allergic reactions to cochineal dye, it’s no more than other common allergens.

Harvesting the Precious Carmine Powder

The process of harvesting carmine is incredibly labor-intensive, passed down through generations. Catalina Carmona degante learned it from her grandmother when she was just four years old.

Carmona meticulously tends to each stage – cutting and caring for young cactus paddles, placing each tiny insect by hand onto the paddles, and finally harvesting the female cachaneels after months of feeding.

The cochineal’s dried bodies are then ground by hand into a fine powder using traditional tools like the carved volcanic stone metate. It takes 70,000 bugs to make just one pound of the precious carmine dye ¹.

A Vibrant Red Hue That Colored History

the dye used in history

The vibrant red hue of carmine colored the very fabric of history. It illuminated medieval manuscripts, gave depth to paintings by the Old Masters, and colored the robes of royalty from the Aztecs to British monarchs.

When the Spanish conquered the Aztecs in the 1500s, they were amazed by the vibrant red fabrics colored with cochineal dye. It became a precious trade good exported to Europe where it was highly prized.

But by the late 20th century, most cactus farms in Mexico had vanished, unable to compete with synthetic dyes.

Now just a handful of families like Carmona’s struggle to preserve the ancient practice in Oaxaca, site of one of the last cachaneel farms.

An Uphill Battle Against Cheaper Alternatives

While traditional artisans and chefs still seek out Carmona’s carmine, she can no longer fill large orders from international buyers. Peru now dominates over 80% of cochineal production, able to produce it more cheaply.

Carmona has started replacing most of her cactus field with corn. “It’s difficult to compete in the global market,” she says. “I’ll raise cachaneels as long as I can. But I worry this tradition will die with my generation.”

The fate of the cochineal hangs in the balance in its native Mexico. With more investment, producers hope to revive the brilliant dye and the labor behind it. For now, Carmona persists in caring for her bugs, determined to pass on the age-old tradition.


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Davin is a jack-of-all-trades but has professional training and experience in various home and garden subjects. He leans on other experts when needed and edits and fact-checks all articles.