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.

IMG_0639

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.

IMG_0637

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?

IMG_0642
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.

IMG_0640.JPG
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.

One Foot in the Grave

For my job, I routinely have people tell me “oh, I’m too old for this” or “I can’t do this, I’m going to just keel over right here”. We’ll be out on the trail for twenty minutes and already there are the groans and whines and the occasional curses. Sometimes, it’s even the actual elderly folks complaining about being on death’s door.

And after another solid experience with that today, someone claiming they were wholly incapable of walking another inch (they walked another two miles that day, in fact), I remembered something I’d read a long time ago.

Insects feel the same way.

Well, feel might be the wrong term. But they behave that way sometimes. They’ll look at the older folks within their group and try to decide how to best use them in and around the colony. Do you want to put your Auntie Ant in a nice Ant retirement home, safe from the ravages of the world? Perhaps you want to trust Grandma Ant to raise the next generation in her own image with her own words of wisdom?

IMG_0629
This might be the most horrifying thing I’ve ever drawn…

In some Hymenopterans (some honeybees and ant species), there is a pretty firm answer.

They put ‘em to work.

There’s this thing called the Geometric Centrifugal Model of Work, which is a big and fancy sounding thing that breaks down pretty simple.

In essence, the older an individual member of the colony is, the further away from the colony’s center it will do its work. That means essentially the safest jobs are done by the youngest members of the colony, and the most dangerous jobs are done by the oldest members of the colony.

In this case, the safer jobs would be things like brood care or food processing, things that don’t really leave the nest at all. The more dangerous would be things like foraging and defense.

IMG_0633

And when you think about it in an insect context, it makes sense. A lot of time, effort, and resources have been put into taking that individual ant from an egg into a full blown adult. And in some species, they can lose anywhere from 1-10% of the colony in a single day of foraging. Why would you risk hurting that investment before it has a chance to pay the colony back for its resources?

It’s kind of like buying a car. You take it out on the road the first few times and you’re pretty careful. You just made this investment, you want it to last. Maybe you put it into the garage every time a rainstorm is coming. After a few months you skip out on a rainstorm or two, a couple years later you don’t even bother putting it in the garage, and in another decade you’re donating it to a younger member of the family so they have something to beat the snot out of.

For some honeybees it’s a similar system. A typical European honeybee lives about sixty five to eighty days. The first twenty or so of those are spent as an egg, a larvae and a pupa. That’s pretty much when your car is being built in the first place, or when you’re saving up for the car.

From there they will emerge, and spend one or two weeks in brood care (babysitting, yuck) or queen care (still babysitting). After that, its food processing (converting nectar into honey, essentially) then a week or so late they become foragers or field bees. Finally, they will put that sixth foot into the grave and go to the great flower field in the sky.

The vast majority of those field bees will not die of old age. They’ll end up being eaten by something, injured by something, perhaps lost, or caught in some other natural phenomena.

So, long story short, the older you are, the further you go away, and the better chance you have of not making it back. Like a centrifuge, the individual is spun outward away from colony center until eventually they don’t come back.

 

IMG_0634
I need a bigger whiteboard

And to wrap it all up with a nice little bow, it’s all chemically initiated and controlled (at least in bees). That means generally it’s not a big injury or something similar, which in some insects would be a death sentence and in others would just mean you go into retirement. It just happens for no visible reason. It’s almost like that car you just bought had somehow been manufactured to degrade. Like it was planned that this massive investment was to become obsolete.

Wouldn’t it be weird if that actually happened?

 

 

 

Further Reading:

Hölldobler, B., Wilson, E. O., & Nelson, M. C. (2009). The superorganism: the beauty, elegance, and strangeness of insect societies. New York: W.W. Norton.