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Natural carmine - color from insects

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In our century rich in discoveries, natural carmine, a valuable dye obtained from a special type of insect, is almost forgotten. For three hundred years, this insect, cochineal, was the main source of red dye for textiles.

Cochineal belongs to the family of scale insects. Most scale insects are agricultural pests (they are relatives of aphids), but two of them - cochineal and varnish scale insects, which secrete valuable shellac resin - are of industrial importance. Cochineal lives on prickly pear cactus. White spots on the stems of the cactus are visible from afar. If you look closely, you can see that these are crowds of cochineal. Each insect is wrapped in a fluffy white cover that reliably protects it from rain, wind and withering rays of the sun. Insects reach their full size - eight millimeters in length - by three months. The dye is obtained from wingless females, sitting on a cactus all their lives and eating its juice. After laying 400-500 eggs, the female dies. The fluid contained in the body of the cochineal is dark red in color. The shades of the finished dye can vary from bright red to orange and even purple, depending on the concentration and on what the fabric was etched with before dyeing. Winged males are smaller and less common. They do not live on cacti and cannot be used to make carmine.

How did the carmine color come about?

Cochineal was bred in ancient times by the Indians who lived in the south of what is now Mexico.

Mexico is the birthplace of prickly pear, and, apparently, cochineal was not known in South America until the invasion of the Spaniards, although archaeologists have established that even in pre-Columbian times, fabrics dyed with carmine fell into the Andes by trade routes.

Aliens from Europe drew attention to a strange insect that gives paint. The Spaniards called this insect "cochinilla" - literally "pig". This word, having changed somewhat, entered many languages. By the end of the 16th century, cochineal had become an important commodity because it was better than any other source of red dye known at the time. Controlling their overseas colonies, the Spaniards took over almost the entire world market for the supply of cochineal. The most important cochineal breeding areas were Mexico, Guatemala, western South America and later the Canary Islands.

A lot of carmine was exported to Europe, but the bulk of the "harvest" was used in South America itself. Cochineal provided a red dye for peasant homespun textiles and for the production of many small textile enterprises. Around 1880, aniline dyes derived from coal tar flooded the world market. These synthetic dyes were cheaper than natural ones, and traditional cochineal fishing areas gradually reduced the production of carmine, as it did not pay off. Gradually, the local population of the Andes switched to synthetic paint to dye their own textiles. However, some local weavers continued to use cochineal to dye yarn. Recently there has been a resurgence of demand for cochineal carmine. It turns out that for dyeing some types of textiles, cosmetics, confectionery, natural carmine is preferable to synthetic dyes.

The area of the city of Ayacucho in Peru became the center of the revived fishery. Difficult terrain and impassability isolate this area from the rest of the country. Precipitation falls only in winter, and for half a year the sun scorches mercilessly.

Most of the people in this area are small farmers. The average peasant owns less than one hectare of land, and the bulk of arable land has long been owned by large landowners.

Various types of cacti grow on rocky, eroded mountain slopes. The prickly pear is the most common here. Her seeds instantly start up; shoots, and long stems, if they are knocked down by the wind, immediately take root and give new shoots. The green mass of cacti is often used for livestock feed, and the juicy tasty prickly pear fruits are a good refreshment on a hot day. At the beginning of the year, they can be seen in large numbers in the local market. Sometimes cacti are planted instead of a fence around villages. But the cochineal that parasitizes prickly pear is much more valuable than the plant itself. Cochineal harvesting is an important additional source of income for farmers. Collectors have to travel long distances to collect enough cochineal. Harvesting cochineal is hard work due to:

  • burning sun,
  • bites of flies, mosquitoes and ticks,
  • cactus thorns.

Insects are swept from the flat surface of the stem onto a plate or into a box. Although the insect is attached to the plant with a proboscis, it can be easily removed from the cactus with a stiff brush, which is driven between the spines. So that the wind does not carry away light insects, the collection is carried out on quiet, windless days. Collectors try not to touch the larvae and eggs, because they contain little carmine, but the future harvest depends on them. An experienced picker can pick up two kilograms of insects a day, but if there are a lot of insects and the picker works quickly, he can pick up two or three times as many. It takes 155,000 live insects to produce one kilogram of dry cochineal.

Cochineal breeds all year round and can be harvested monthly. But the hot time for collecting insects comes in the dry period, in cool weather. Very heavy rain can wash insects off cacti. Hail is even more dangerous for cochineal. Collectors come to the same cactus grove twice a year. Collectors do not look into remote and hard-to-reach cactus groves. Cacti, which are easily accessible, harvest cochineal ten times a year. More insects are found in lower areas and on older plants. Sometimes cactus plants are specially infected with live insects brought from other places.

The prey is placed on a blanket and periodically stirred so that the cochineal dries evenly. A well-dried cochineal is four times lighter than a live insect and looks like a shriveled rowan berry. To clean the cochineal from any debris, it is sieved several times through a sieve. Almost the entire crop is now exported to other countries, since the Indians use this dye little for their needs. Dry cochineal is exported as a whole, and not ground, so that sawdust or sand cannot be mixed with a valuable commodity. Every year about one and a half hundred tons of cochineal are exported from Peru.

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