Cochineal was the precious red dye of the Aztecs.

When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico in the 1500s, they were amazed by the brilliant red-dyed clothing worn the natives. Europe had red dyes - madder root, lichen, and the kermes insect - but nothing could compare with the brilliant scarlet of the Aztec cloth.

The secret was a tiny insect, the cochineal scale (Dactylopius coccus), that lived on the flattened stems (pads or cladodes) of certain prickly pear cactus (Nopalea cochenillifera and Opuntia). The Aztecs called the dye nocheztli, for they found it on the divine cactus, teo-nochtli.

The dye comes from the female cochineal scales, which are crushed to obtain the purplish pigment their bodies produce. This pigment, an astringent chemical called carminic acid, protects the insect from predation, and yields the brilliant and durable red dye carmine. Interestingly, while these females may live up to three years, the males of the species lack mouthparts and live only a week after hatching - their sole function is to reproduce.

At first the Spanish thought the dried, unprocessed insects were seeds, so they called them grana cochinilla. This accidental misnomer later served the Spanish well, helping them to maintain a monopoly on the dye for a time, which they guarded as a state secret. When explorers from other European nations came to the New World to learn the secret of the dye, they were looking for seeds (grana) instead of insects. The Spanish monopoly on cochineal production was not broken until 1777, when a French naturalist smuggled Mexican cactus pads with cochineal scales to Haiti.

Today, cochineal is still used to produce a wide variety of pigments, including paints, food coloring, clothing dyes, rouge, and lipstick (beware, that might be squished bugs on your lips!).

Ever wonder why the British military (“Redcoats”) or the Roman Catholic Cardinals wear bright red, or where the dye to make that color came from?

The dye comes from the dead bodies of a New World insect, the cochineal (Cactylopius coccus ). It happened like this…

The cochineal lives in what is now the American Southwest, as well as Mexico and Peru. This tiny bug makes its home on the pulpy pads of the prickly pear cactus. As the female of the species (which is only a quarter of an inch long) burrows into the plant, it leaves behind on the surface a white fuzz. The males are even smaller, and only live for a week, during which time they mate with as many females as possible. The females spend their entire 105-120 day lives on the cactus pads where they were born.

Pre-Columbian Indians learned that they could produce a rich red powder by removing the females and drying and grinding their bodies. This powder, when mixed with water, becomes the vibrant red dye (carmine). It takes approximately 130,000 insects to make one kilogram of dry weight cochineal. By the 14th century, the production of cochineal dye figured prominently in the agricultural systems of both the Incas and the Aztecs, and the color was being used on everything from their own bodies to fabrics to the shields of the warriors.

At that time in Europe, red colorings were made from water mixed with the dried, ground up bodies of another insect, the kermes beetle (Coccus ilicis )*. The reds in the Dead Sea Scrolls, wrappings of Egyptian mummies, and Neolithic cave paintings in France all came from this dye. Although it had been the best available for years, the kermes dye looked dull and faded next to the hues produced with cochineal. In 1519, when Cortez invaded Mexico, he found the nobles dressed in brilliant red robes. At that time, Mayan cities which had been conquered by Montezuma were paying tribute that included bags of cochineal. Pizarro and Cortez both shipped the dye back to Spain, where it became an instant success. To make the dyestuff more appealing (and to hide the fact that it was made from dead insects), the Spanish referred to it as “seeds”. By the mid 1500s, Europeans were using cochineal, which they thought was extracted from berries, in makeup (rouge) and food coloring, as well as fabric dyes. By 1600, cochineal was the second most valuable product imported to Spain from Mexico, after silver.

Because of cochineal’s scarcity, the dye was expensive, and the scarlet it produced quickly became associated with power and prestige (hence its use by the British military and the Roman Catholic church). In 1630, a Dutch chemist named Drebbel came up with a method of treating cochineal with an acidic tin solution to increase the brilliance of the dye and improve its ability to bind with fabric. Some time in the 18th century, an English dye house signed a contract to dye the Buckingham Palace guard coats using cochineal, a practice that continued for two hundred years.

At its peak, cochineal was used as a food coloring in everything from maraschino cherries to dried fish. In the late 1860s and early 1870s, seven million pounds were produced annually, and the equivalent of 420 billion insects were exported from the Canary Islands to Europe. By the 1880s, new, fade-resistant and easy to produce synthetic aniline dyes began to replace cochineal. Some of the artificial red dyes that were used in food eventually turned out to be carcinogenic, however, and these days public interest is beginning to return to natural food dyes.

Cochineal is currently the only natural red food coloring which has FDA approval, and it is currently used in the US in microscopy stains, medical tracers, and artist’s paints. These days, Peru is the largest exporter of cochineal; in 1996, 640 metric tons of cochineal were harvested—more than half of that number from cacti growing in the wild.


* Oddly enough, it is the female of the species used to make this dye, too.

Thanks to Renee s. Lizotte, Arthropod Keeper at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum for reminding me of the name of that interesting little bug, and to the following sites for the information: 5/24/02 5/24/02 5/24/02 2/2/03 2/2/03 2/2/03

I would highly recommend the National Geographic photo voyage by Photographer David McLain/Aurora & Quanta Productions, which can be viewed at

Coch"i*neal , [Sp. cochinilla, dim. from L. coccineus, coccinus, scarlet, fr. coccum the kermes berry, G. berry, especially the kermes insect, used to dye scarlet, as the cohineal was formerly supposed to be the grain or seed of a plant, and this word was formerly defined to be the grain of the Quercus coccifera; but cf. also Sp. cochinilla wood louse, dim. of cochina sow, akin to F. cochon pig.]

A dyestuff consisting of the dried bodies of females of the Coccus cacti, an insect native in Mexico, Central America, etc., and found on several species of cactus, esp. Opuntia cochinellifera.

⇒ These insects are gathered from the plant, killed by the application of heat, and exposed to the sun to dry. When dried they resemble small, rough berries or seeds, of a brown or purple color, and form the cochineal of the shops, which is used for making carmine, and also as a red dye.

⇒ Cochineal contains as its essential coloring matter carminic acid, a purple red amorphous substance which yields carmine red.


© Webster 1913.

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