Friday, October 8, 2010

cochineal crack up, cultural craftiness, and carnage

Thanks to skepticalmoth for posting this amusing bit re: the little bugs used for thousands of years for the red color they produce (to dye clothes & food):

In case that doesn't work for you, click here. It's also a delightful statement re: knowledge, learning, etc. AWESOME. MAN, the Brits are good at self- and mutual-deprecation. Ouch!

As skeptical moth rightly points out, these entertaining folks call the bugs beetles, and they are not.

And don't get cochineal mixed up with cochlea--I had to look up the latter just to get my brain to stop trying to figure out what role the ear had in all this. And it isn't the cloaca either (pardon; how does it always come back to monotremes?).

All these words like marbles rattling around in my head: Who am I? What do I mean? How do we relate? Yikes.

Back to cochineal
Per Wiki: "...the insect produces carminic acid that deters predation by other insects. Carminic acid, which occurs as 17-24% of the weight of the dry insects, can be extracted from the insect's body and eggs ... to make carmine dye (also known as cochineal). Carmine is today primarily used as a food colouring and for cosmetics."

Wow. According to Wiki, it takes 70,000 insects to produce one pound of dye. Oh, the humanity!

"Indian Collecting Cochineal with a Deer Tail"
by José Antonio de Alzate y Ramírez (1777).

Can you imagine, from the bugs' perspective, reading the following?

"The insects are killed by immersion in hot water (after which they are dried) or by exposure to sunlight, steam, or the heat of an oven. Each method produces a different colour that results in the varied appearance of commercial cochineal. The insects must be dried to about 30 percent of their original body weight before they can be stored without decaying."

(buggy thought bubble: "You people are MONSTERS!")


"There are two principal forms of cochineal dye: cochineal extract is a colouring made from the raw dried and pulverised bodies of insects, and carmine is a more purified colouring made from the cochineal. To prepare carmine, the powdered insect bodies are boiled in ammonia or a sodium carbonate solution, the insoluble matter is removed by filtering, and alum is added to the clear salt solution of carminic acid to precipitate the red aluminium salt."

(buggy thought bubble: "arrrrrrrrgh!")

oog. I think I've made myself ill.

ANYhow, I think it's a pretty fascinating intersection of culture, commerce, nature, history, and chemistry.

You just can't make this stuff up.



  1. So what does the small print say on a bottle of red food dye? Here be bugs. Squashed and dried. Enjoy!

  2. Interesting. Is the Indian gathering cochineal from the prickly pear?

  3. That clip is from one of my favourite must-watch shows - QI.

    It's a good job bugs can't read ;)

  4. Really funny post. I liked it from the bugs perspective. Always a good laugh when you look at it from another point of view. Funny video.


Cool people write inside rectangles....