Harry’s advent calendar of insects, day 13: cochineal

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.

4 replies on “Harry’s advent calendar of insects, day 13: cochineal”

Crushed bug dye is neat, but what about the Google Maps app now available on iPhone? Does it work in the UK?

I’ve heard of cochineal, and I think the colors are pretty. I have no idea of what a smartie is. Although I am an American who has spent a lot of time in the UK I have not encountered these things (to my knowledge).

But I love the insect advent.

Yup, the Google Maps app seems pretty good. Obviously the data is much more detailed and more reliable than Apple’s, which is the main thing, but the UI is stylish and reasonably well thought out, although they seem to have eaten into the useable map area for the sake of designery white space, which is a bit annoying.

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