Using the Cochineal bug and Dying things RED!!
Making and Using a Natural dye.

by R Edward Moore

The Cochineal Bug (Dactylopius confusus) is a small beetle that lives on cactus. This beetle makes a dark red dye. The dye is a lot like dark red ink. Lets go find some of these beetles and dye some stuff red the way the Indians did.

First we go find some cactus. Cacti with the beetles on them are easy to spot. The Cochineal beetle makes a fuzzy white web that it lives under. This web looks like a little puff of cotton on the cactus. Once they make this web the beetle doesn't move.

I put the penny here so you can see the size of the puffs.

There are usually hundreds of these white puffs all over the cactus pads. When the Cacti have beetles on them you can see them from a distance.

I cut a couple of pads off the cactus and took them home. I was careful not to get stuck with the spines. You DO NOT want to touch a cactus pad with your hand. The spines are very sharp.

Here are the pads I cut off. They will be enough to experiment with. Look at all the white puffs on them.

Now lets take a closer look at these beetles. I am using an old fork to avoid the spines and pull off one of the puffs.

When we open up one of the puffs we find several little black things that look like tiny balls. These are the beetles.

There are also some small critters that run around. These are the beetle larva. A larva is an immature beetle. I flipped this one on it back so we could see its legs.

Now lets get some dye out of them. Using a toothpick I push down on one of the beetles and it pops open and red liquid runs out. These beetles are full of this red liquid. This is the dye. Each beetle has a small drop of red ink like dye in it. The Indians could have used a small splinter of wood the same way.

The white fuzz is sticky and sticks to the end of the toothpick. This makes a nice small brush. Using this brush I take some of the red dye and draw with it on paper.



A little more work and several beetles later I have drawn a bird with a lightning bolt over his head.

I got a bunch of the dye on my fingers.  Sure looks like blood!! But it isn't.  I hope it washes off. (it does)

Now lets try dying some cotton cloth. This is just using three or four bugs. If I wanted to I could have squished several hundred bugs and dyed a larger area.

My friend Sherry is having fun making red fingerprints on the paper. The dye is a lot like ink.

Now you know one way Indians used an insect to make a dye to paint things and dye things red. These bugs we used today have a dark red color. Others I have seen have bright red and even a pinkish red color. The dye doesn't stay red. It turns black after a day or so.

I think the Cochineal Bugs are pretty cool. What do you think of them? What other things could be dyed with them? How about feathers? The toothpick soaked up the dye and turned red so wood can be dyed with these bugs.

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Copyright by R. Edward. Moore and Texarch Associates, 2000, all rights reserved. Pictures by R Edward Moore. Pictures may not be used or reproduced without prior permission. Short parts of text may be quoted in school reports. Longer quotes require prior written permission.

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