Cochineal Red: The Bright Red Dye

In the ancient world of the Aztecs, red dye was considered more valuable than gold. The dye is made from the dried female cochineal beetles. Beetles were collected by hundreds of subjects combing the desert in search of its source. A pound of water-soluble extract required about a million insects, just as back in the days of the Roman Empire, a pound of royal purple dye required four million mollusks.

After the arrival of Cortez in the 1500s, the Spaniards traded the dried remains of this insect as a colorant that dyed items a brilliant crimson. Cochineal red was a stronger dye than ever before – and a color that no one could duplicate. Europeans used it for fabrics and illumination in addition to cooking since it is natural dye.

In the years that followed, great painter Michelangelo used it in paintings. The British used it for redcoats and the Canadians for their Mounted Police coats. It is thought that the first U.S. flag made by Betsy Ross had cochineal red stripes.

With the advances in chemistry of dyes, nowadays synthetic dyes have replaced almost all the natural dyes which were very labor intensive and involved growing of particular plants like indigo plant in India and insects. Synthetic dyes have more shades and are cheaper.

English: Breeding of the Cochineal (Dactylopiu...

Today, less expensive aniline dyes have replaced it, but it is used as a food coloring and is approved by the FDA as a natural colorant for food, drug and cosmetics. In fact, some brands of fruit juice use this red bug juice as a colorant.

The story of Cochineal red is even more fascinating. Europeans were never told of its insect origin. In reality, the insect looked so much like a seed, that the Spaniards traded it as grain.

More of Dyes: Animal Dyes

As told previously, the dyes were made from the minerals and natural rocks. The examples of these were Ochre Dyes which are the iron oxide compounds.

Second group of natural dyes is the animal group. One of the earliest and most important of the animal dyes called Tyrian Purple was obtained from several species of snails found along the shores of the Mediterranean.

Plicopurpura pansa

It was discovered by the Phoenicians about 1500 B.C. and became, for the next 3000 years, the most important dye of the civilizations that rose and fell in the area. The demand for mollusks rose rapidly as dye factories sprung up along the Mediterranean and west African coasts, and Phoenician traders carried the dye to Spain, France, and Italy. According to Pliny the Elder, the dye was extracted by crushing the shellfish and boiling them in salt water for ten days. Cloth was dipped in this solution, then exposed to sunlight. Due to the photosensitive nature of the coloring molecules, the yellow color changed to greenish-blue, then finally to purple. The Roman emperors prized the dye and decreed that only members of the royal family could wear clothing colored by it, hence the expression “born to the purple.” Among those who wore Tyrian purple were Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Cleopatra.
Other animal dyes were obtained from insects. Kermes was a scarlet dye obtained from Coccus ilicis, a tree scale that lived on oak. Moses mentioned its use in Egypt, and other writers referred to it as captured booty in 1400 B.C. Kermes varied in color from bluish-red to brilliant scarlet depending on the mordant used. A mordant is cation of metal which forms a link between the clothe and the dye and helps adhere permanently to the clothe. It can also change the color of the dye altogether. One example of the mordant is Alum which contains Aluminum ions in trivalent state.

A dye very similar to kermes was discovered by Mexican dyers around 1000 B.C. Cochineal is derived from another scale insect, Dactylopius coccus, that lived on cactus. The insects were collected by hand, about 200 pounds per acre of cactus, and dried in the sun. The dried insects resembled rust-colored grain seeds and gave scarlet dye when soaked in water. The Spaniards learned of cochineal in 1518 A.D. and brought it to Europe, where it rapidly replaced kermes. The scarlet obtained with a tin mordant is particularly beautiful and was used until 1954 to dye the uniforms of the British Brigade of Guards uniforms.

Dried Insects