The Rio Grande Valley in Texas is a fascinating world in itself. We have plenty of natural hidden treasures here in deep south Texas; from the ancient giant oyster beds in Roma to La Sal del Rey in central Hidalgo County, there’s always plenty for visitors and locals to see.
And there’s plenty of unique and amazing creatures that call the region home as well.
One of the most intriguing, and historically important, critters is the cochineal bug (Dactylopius coccus). This small insect is native to tropical and subtropical regions throughout the Americas, including here in Texas, and we also have plenty of these little fellas here at the Cappadona Ranch in Linn.
The females of these amazing bugs live on prickly pear cacti, feeding on the plant’s moisture and juices. They’ll band together on cactus pads and will remain immobile unless bothered. When the females give birth to tiny nymphs, the nymphs secrete a white, web-like substance that covers the bugs and protects them from the elements.
But perhaps the most interesting fact about the cochineal bug is that they produce carminic acid, which is used as a form of protection from other insects. This same acid also serves another purpose.
For hundreds of years, humans have collected cochineal bugs to create a vibrant red pigment that is used to dye fabrics! The fabrics tend to retain the colorant for an incredibly long time, and for many centuries cochineal was a major trade good. In fact, it became the second most valuable Spanish export after silver.
Cochineal (also known as carmine dye) was unknown outside of the Americas until the 1500s, when Europeans crossed the Atlantic and discovered the indigenous peoples using the cochineal bugs to create brilliantly colored textiles. Imaginably, these native Americans mastered this technique and used it for centuries.
The Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire began what would soon become a monumental export for the emerging empire. During the Spanish colonial period in Mexico, the production of cochineal dye grew at an unprecedented rate, and traders were soon shipping the commodity all throughout Europe and even as far as India. The dye was so valuable that its price was regularly placed on the London and Amsterdam Commodity Exchanges.
At its peak, cochineal was in high demand as a dye for the clothes of kings, nobles, and clergy. It was also used in the creation of oriental rugs, paintings, handicrafts, and tapestries.
While there were several early attempts to create viable cochineal producing markets outside of Mexico, none were successful. History, however, has a way of bringing many things to an end.
After the Mexican War of Independence (1810-1821) the production of cochineal dye in Mexico nearly came to a standstill. As relations between Mexico and Spain remained strained, large-scale production began to emerge in other regions of the world including Guatemala, the Canary Islands, North Africa, and even Spain.
The glory days of cochineal dye would then be dealt the final blow. The development of synthetic and artificial pigments and dyes in the mid-to-late 19th century essentially wiped out the industry. The modern methods of creation and lower production costs meant that breeding the cochineal bug and using manual labor to harvest was no longer needed.
The cochineal insect was no longer the world power that it once was.
While the breeding of the cochineal insect and creation of carmine dye remained a tradition for indigenous peoples in Mexico and Central America throughout the 20th century, its popularity has once again risen in recent years. One of the main reasons is that the most frequently used synthetic red dyes, such as Red No. 2 and Red No. 40, have been found to be carcinogenic and carry other potential health risks.
While the FDA did rule that carmine and cochineal extracts need to be identified in ingredient lists because of “adverse events”, the numbers are staggeringly low, a total of THREE events over a 10-year period.
The health fears of artificial additives has helped to increase the demand of cochineal dyes, with Peru and Canary Island plantations becoming the biggest exporters in recent history.
It seems as if these small creatures are once again ready for the spotlight.