A Better Red from the New World

A tiny little insect became a big deal.
Cochineal bugs live on the paddles of Prickly Pear Cactus and can be easily swept off.

When Cortez conquered Mexico in 1520, one of the discoveries that he made was a new red dye. Up until then, the red dies in Europe produced drab, lifeless reds.

The new astonishing cochineal red was an instant success in Europe and grew to a large industry to keep up with demand. After gold and silver, it was the third most valuable product of the new world.

At left are the cochineal bugs before processing. Prickly Pear Cactus can hold thousands of cochineal bugs.
Only the female cochineal bugs are used to make the red dye.

To process cochineal red, the female bugs that live on Prickly Pear plans are collected, dried and crushed. The resulting red liquid is processed to an intensely red power dye. The tiny cochineal bug is still used in some red paints, notably carmine red.

Cochineal/Carmine red is still used for some paints and clothing dyes. Today, synthetic dyes have changed the industry.

And that is the story of how a tiny bug made a big "splash" in the world!