Cochineal is Dactylopius coccus, a rather undistinguished looking scale insect that lives on the prickly pear cactus.
But when you squish it, it does this:
Which means you can do this with it:
When it’s a dye, we call it carmine. Apparently it’s not used much for fabrics or paints anymore, since the invention of artificial dyes which are cheaper and more colour-fast. But it is still widely used in food, not least because it can be labelled as a completely natural additive.
And if you’re creeped out by the idea that your sweets, strawberry yoghurt and tandoori chicken contain bug extract: the artificial alternatives are made from coal-tar sludge. Which you may or may not think sounds more appetising. Personally I’m able to put it out of my mind at least long enough to eat a tube of Smarties.*
* By which I mean Smarties, obviously, rather than Smarties. Although according to Wikipedia, the UK Smarties no longer contain cochineal anyway: instead they use red cabbage. Which has less of an ick factor, but isn’t exactly an ingredient that brings to mind sugary childhood treats (the US Smarties still have the crushed bugs, though).
» ‘Dactylopius coccus (Barlovento)’ is © Frank Vincentz and used under a CC by-sa licence. ‘Ground Cochineal’ is © Travis S and used under a CC by-nc licence. ‘March 2009 Etsy update, pinks’ is © knitting iris and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.