Female COCHINEAL SCALE INSECT
and Mexican Rug using Cochineal Dye
Dactylopius coccus costa
Insect photo ©callnorthwest.com
Carpet photo ©Laura Quick
A scale insect in the suborder Sternorrhyncha, from which the crimson-coloured dye carmine is derived. A primarily sessile parasite native to tropical and subtropical South America and Mexico, this insect lives on cacti from the genus Opuntia, feeding on plant moisture and nutrients.
The carmine dye was used in Central America in the 15th century for coloring fabrics and became an important export good during the colonial period. After synthetic pigments and dyes such as alizarin were invented in the late 19th century, natural-dye production gradually diminished. Health fears over artificial food additives, however, have renewed the popularity of cochineal dyes, and the increased demand has made cultivation of the insect profitable again, with Peru being the largest exporter. Some towns in the state of Oaxaca (in Mexico) are still working with hand-made textiles using cochineal dyes — as in the Oxacan rug shown above.
The host cactus Opuntia (also known as “Prickly pear”) was brought to Australia in an attempt to start a cochineal dye industry in 1788, when Captain Arthur Phillip collected a number of cochineal-infested plants from Brazil on his way to establish the first European settlement at Botany Bay (part of which is now Sydney, New South Wales). At that time, Spain and Portugal had a worldwide monopoly (via their New World colonial sources) on the cochineal dye industry, and the British desired a source under their own control, as the dye was important to their clothing and garment industries (it was used to colour the British soldiers’ red coats, for example). The attempt was a failure in two ways: the Brazilian cochineal insects soon died off, but the cactus thrived, eventually overrunning eastern Australia. The cacti were eventually brought under control in the 1920s by the deliberate introduction of a South American moth, Cactoblastis cactorum, whose larvae fed on the cactus.
Fact Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cochineal
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