I am so glad that no one can read my thoughts. I can barely keep up with some of the stuff bouncing around in there like balls in a lottery machine. And in that primordial soup of randomness, it’s hard to say why one thing floated up to the surface like a message in a bottle.
Right now it is coloring. You know the big thing right now is coloring books for adults?
Hey, I’m not judging (though I was told in kindergarten that if I couldn’t learn to color in the lines I would never get to first grade…). Well since the dawn of time humans have been coloring. We have been drawing on cave walls and animal skins. I found one
reference for cave drawings of honey gatherers in Spain estimated from over 15,000 years ago. Wow.
And since early on, humans (assumedly) wanted to make their drawings colorful and distinctive. Enter the scale. Not the scale in your bathroom that you avoid looking at every morning while you swear you are going to the gym later today. The scale insect (superfamily Coccoidea), sometimes called the cochineal insect. This is a true bug (Hempitera) NOT a beetle (Coleoptera). These small insects look like a tiny shell and can secrete a wax covering that can make them look smooth and shiny or soft and fuzzy. These are all plant feeding and they jab their piercing-sucking mouthparts into plant tissue to suck up the juices like a margarita at the end of a long week. In the 1500’s and probably before, the Aztecs were using scales from the family Diaspididae to create an incredibly vibrant and long lasting crimson red dye. Their preferred host is prickly pear cacti. It takes about 70,000 insects to produce a pound of dye. With ships traveling back and forth between the old world, new world, and the orient, this incredible dye soon spread throughout the world.
Think that’s the end of the story? Until 2009, anything that had “natural color” on the food label could have contained these insects. See “Natural Red 4”? Yep, Cochineal scale. Along with foods, these are also used in cosmetics. There was a big brewhaha a few years ago when Starbucks came under fire for using cochineal dye in their frappuccinos. Despite miscreant mass media mendacities, this is not crushed up bugs with bits of
wings and legs sticking out of a goo of bug slop that gets added to your favorite yogurt. It is an extract taken from the crushed up scales (sorry, scales were definitely harmed during this process). Think of it like apple cider; apples are smashed and smushed and you get apple juice with no apples in it. So with the dye, it is like bug juice, minus the bug bits.
So next time you see a vivid scarlet color, you can now think about a tiny little insect. You’re welcome. I am going to go attempt to color an insect coloring page just for kicks now as soon as I can find one with skulls and flies and beetles. Spread the entomological awesomeness!