Seeing Red: How Cochineal Insects Die for Dye

This book, an example of contemporary 15th century Italian binding, features a core dyed with cochineal. This image can be found in LUNA: Folger Bindings Image Collection.

Cochineal are insects that did not exist in the "Old World" before conquistadors brought the insects across the Atlantic Ocean—as pigment and ink. After Hernán Cortés reported back to Spain on the small creatures used to make red dye in Mexico, the dye spread all throughout New Spain and then to countries such as France, Denmark, and England, all of which attempted to harvest cochineal in their colonies, to varying degrees of success.

This recipe book, obtainable through the Folger Shakespeare Library's online archives, shows a ca. 1700-ca. 1850 salve recipe using "a Little Cochineal Beat fine."

Medicinal recipe books, such as the one pictured to the left, often used crushed cochineal as an ingredient. People got physically close to the tiny bugs, yet often did not realize that their proximity to cochineal was present in their lives beyond balms or salves. Many people did not understand the nature of the insects that provided the dye, or even that the life form involved was an insect, as opposed to other creatures such as worms. As documented in the Oxford English Dictionary, W. Rutty wrote in the 1729-30 Philosophical transactions that "The Curious may be now assured of a Thing which has been very uncertain for so many Years, that the Cochineal were really little Animals," continuing a thread regarding awareness of the insect also sought out by J. Florio in 1598, who wrote of "a kind of rich flie or graine coming out of India to dye scarlet with, called Cutchenele." In 1604, E. Grimeston excitedly labeled his cochineal concept as "small wormes."

Sweeping away the creatures that make up a dull day

In his 2021 Modern Language Association convention talk, McGill Assistant Professor Michael Nicholson described the Romantic sympathy for the squashed bug. The writers expressing surprise at cochineal often display this reaction through their wonder at the dye's origin. They want to share the news of the dye.

Those who worked the daily labor of cochineal seem to have experienced less wonder, according to visual depictions such as the one to the right. Cochineal exist as scale bugs, meaning they gather into groups and live in a way that seems almost plantlike. Cochineal are pests from a horticultural perspective, so myriad websites offer guidance on how to treat an infestation. The eye does not instinctively search for individual bugs when noticing cochineal; if you have seen what look like white clumps along the surface of a prickly pear cactus or similar plants, you have seen cochineal.

Sadly, harvesting efforts, such as the failed English attempt in South Carolina, sometimes relied on slave labor, establishing a cruel irony of misery by means of what was originally a Mexican indigenous industry. Using enslaved people to harvest cochineal was not the norm. One commonality between many cochineal harvesters, such as the one depicted in the painting labeled Figure 1, is that of disinterest towards the living insects. The person choosing to work with the cochineal might consider the living cochineal insect as similar to grains of rice: inert, static, colorless.

Cochineal scale (Dactylopius confuses) infestation on a Prickly Pear cactus' cladode. Source: USDA Forest Service - Forest Health Protection Intermountain Region - Ogden, UT , USDA Forest Service,

If those who harvest insects disregard the insects' home in Kingdom Animalia, does it matter that they are not grain? Anecdotally, people tend to describe their encounters with cochineal as though they were not killing living creatures when they smashed the insects to see blood red. The lack of eye contact in Figure 1's brushing the infestation away suggests that withholding attention from the creatures allows a more efficient killing. When the sadness of insect death is written in the red ink created from the insect death, a relation of privilege exists on the page that invites a myopic view of aesthetic and distances questions of labor conditions even beyond those of animal rights. Barbara Guest uses poetry to explore these issues during her 1992 poem "Red Dye."

In the poem, Guest first bears witness to these insect lives, leaving behind the romantic gaze to enhance the difference between the cochineal's baseness and the vaunting of those who may use insect pigments as a result of their deaths. Recognizing how the 'blood' warmth of insects differs from the warmth of fervent writing, she writes:

from The American Poetry Review Vol. 21, No. 4

Guest toys with this idea of the crispness required for a pigment to create letters, and she depicts the urge to neatly solidify cochineal. Her poem offers passively beautiful ideas of a red dye—the line "wild berries fell from the ceiling" provides an idyllic notion of color as something provided, and not of the earth—then exposes the naivete required to accept the pleasant and illogical answer with a strong lyric "I," speaking directly in negation: "do not come near the red cochineal / dried insects bury / immortal stings in the hemp."

This urging not to approach the "red cochineal" seems to originate from an intention to protect, with the language of insects and stings existing in a repetitive cacophony of tiny yet persistent noises: stings, insect motions, and the sound of a stiff insect digging into the hemp. The demand to "not come near" the insect urges the reader to remain on the "thoughts and writing" side of the dye, rather than entering the realm of creation on the side of the dye itself. Guest's childlike depiction of the red pigment's origins challenges the atemporality of dye in its packaged form. The choices of the cochineal create an infinity of preserved actions; these stings and insect diggings exist in a physical, untidy place which creates ink more pristine than any smudges from the berries which arrive without effort.

Guest connects the human element of cochineal pigmentation through the image of the cut hand that gestures positively; the worker's pants cannot catch fire, as they make the mechanism through which Pasternak may express himself. The story of cochineal continues through not only firsthand encounters but also through sharing the uses of cochineal by indigenous cultures including the Aztecs, the Zapotecs, and the Mixtecs.

If you want to know more about:

Barbara Guest

how to dye using cochineal

getting rid of the cochineal problem on your cactus

the food or drink aspects

how to buy cochineal