Seeing Red

“Irony: 2. Figurative. An event or outcome which is the opposite of what would naturally be expected.”

Or, as my linguist girlfriend explained, “this is one of those words it’s easier to give an example of than define… it’s like when Ben (from Parks and Rec) gets handcuffed to the urinal. He needs to pee, but he can’t unzip his pants.”

One of my favorite examples of an ironic situation (at least my interpretation of irony, I ain’t no linguist) is that of the insect Dactylopius coccus, the cochineal bug.

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So cochineal bugs, pronounced caw-chin-eye-give-up, have this chemical called carminic acid, and it’s used to basically deter predators from snacking on the fluffy little guys. And generally speaking, it works. There are only a few species that can actually eat this insect without having a strong negative reaction or injury.

Problem being that it has an incredibly vibrant red pigment.

Like fire engine red.

And if there is one thing in this world that humans like, its bright colors. Or alcohol. Alcohol might be first actually, but bright colors are a close second.

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So these tiny little cochineal bugs, a type of scale insect, were reared for close to three hundred years in the interests of producing this dye. They were immensely valuable; when shipped from the New World (where indigenous peoples had been cultivating them long before Europeans arrived), they ranked third only to gold and silver in value per pound.

When Cortez first ran into the Aztec empire, he was blown away by the prevalence of reds in their culture; due mainly to the cochineal bug. Literally millions of pounds of so-called “cochineal red” was produced and exported from the Americas to Europe at large. The Spanish tried to issue a lockdown on exporting live Cochineals, for fear that other nations would pick up this lucrative trade. The Dutch and the French both had smuggling operations set up to do just that, with the eventual success of the French.

Interestingly as well, this insect was cultivated almost exclusively by indigenous populations in the Americas. They had expertise in both growing the host plant (prickly pear cacti) and harvesting the cochineals (a gentle brushing of the cochineals into a basket). Pretty impressive when you consider that in the mid seventeen hundreds, some regions of Mexico were producing a million pounds of this little guy a year.

So, how is this ironic? This insect has an adaptation that helps it avoid being eaten, and it’s one that humans are falling over each other for. They spread the species to different islands and possibly even different continents. Just because it was pretty. If anything, the carminic acid actually helped them survive and thrive, right?

Think over this: you can’t milk an insect.

You can’t take a syringe and carefully pull out a little bit at a time.

How do you harvest cochineal red from cochineals?

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Squish

Yup.

That adaptation caused, in essence, a wide scale murder-for-profit spree of as many cochineals as possible. Cochineals are about half the size of a blueberry. How many Cochineals would it take to make a million pounds as I said before?

 

A lot.

A lot is the answer.

This one species of insect served as the most widely used source of red coloring for longer than the United States has existed; approximately three hundred years. And much of that three hundred years was actually before the United States existed.

Entomologist Thomas Eisner claims that “…Cochineal probably provided the color for the red stripes on the very first American flag, as well as for the red coats of the British soldiers who confronted Americans in the Revolutionary War. In fact, cochineal may have played a role in initiating that war. Merchants objected to paying escalated prices for cochineal from British middlemen, when they could themselves buy the dye directly from Spain or its colonies…”

But fortunately (or unfortunately if you’re a cochineal speculator, which you shouldn’t be), the cochineal red fervor didn’t last forever.

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Cochineals Cheering… because they do that sometimes.

In the mid-1800s, with the advent of lab-made dyes, suddenly it was much cheaper to just manufacture dyes in the lab for your little red dresses (or big hoop dresses, at that point).

So next time you’re out walking around and you see a thing that looks like a half-blueberry sized fuzzball on a nearby branch, take a second to stop and look. If you’re in prickly pear country, it could be one of the most important insects in early American history. Look at it, take a picture of it, pet it, but definitely don’t squish it.

Because if you squish an insect just to see what color its guts are, you’re a dick.

 

 

References:

Berenbaum, May R. (1995). Bugs in the system: Insects and their impacts on human affairs. Perseus Books.

Eisner, T. (2005). For love of insects. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

The World book encyclopedia. (1979). Chicago: World Book-Childcraft International.