I don’t make much attempt to theme these advent calendars around Christmas, but for the last entry I have, in the past, tried to get seasonal: the bird was a robin, the painting was a nativity.
But Christmas isn’t the insectiest time of the year up here in northern Europe, and I don’t have a ready cultural association to hand. So I picked Pyrops candelaria, a planthopper from southeast Asia, because it (sort of, if you squint a bit) looks like a Christmas tree:
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).
The last couple of insects have been interesting rather than beautiful, so here’s a real stunner. I don’t actually have a species name for this one — I just found it on Flickr by searching for bugs — but it was photographed by the USGS Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Laboratory, and their description of the photo reads:
‘Leafhopper, Sharpshooter Collected in November 2012 Dominican Republic at high elevations in central highlands, photgraphed in hand sanitizer in a quartz cuvette. Yes, those are the real colors.’
Here’s another shot of the same beastie (you can click through for larger versions of either photo):