The Bug the World Fought Over

An illustration of cochineal insects, which brought vivid red hues to Europe.
An illustration of cochineal insects, which brought vivid red hues to Europe. / Vahe Martirosyan, Flickr // CC BY 2.0 (insects); Tatyana Gryaznova/Shutterstock (background)

For years, people hungered for the perfect red. The color has a long human history: Mesoamerican scribes used it to record their history, while the Old Testament paints it as the color of sin. In Europe, monarchs draped themselves in rich reds to showcase their wealth. And though the best baroque painters sought to incorporate these deep tones into their work, they often struggled to recreate the fiery shades found in nature—at least until Europeans found out about the cochineal insect, a creature that creates a red dye so incredible that the continent nearly went to war over it.

The Colorful History of the Cochineal Insect

Cochineal scales created this blood-red smear of dye.
Cochineal scales created this blood-red smear of dye. / Pere_Rubi/iStock via Getty Images

At first appearance, the cochineal insect doesn't look very remarkable. It's a tiny bug, with no visible legs or antennae, that lives in prickly pears in the arid regions of the Americas. Adult males never eat, and die shortly after fertilizing a female’s eggs. The females, meanwhile, insert their needle-like mouths directly into the cactus and spend their whole lives slurping prickly pear juice and covering themselves in a white, fluffy protective wax.

It’s the female cochineal insects that captured the world’s attention. Their scales produce a large amount of carminic acid—so much, in fact, “that it amounts to almost 20 percent of their dried body weight,” Richard Zack, professor and associate dean of Entomology at Washington State University, tells Mental Floss. It’s this defensive chemical that makes the cochineal insects so alluring to the people who seek to harvest it.

Mesoamericans realized thousands of years ago that pinching these insects produced blood-red stains on their fingers. Much like we raise bees for honey today, they began farming the cochineal insects for dye.

“We usually think of domestication as being cows and pigs and such,” Amy Butler Greenfield, historian and author of the book A Perfect Red, tells Mental Floss. “But it turns out that the indigenous people of the Americas became quite good at domesticating insects.” According to Greenfield, in Mexico’s southern highlands (the area now known as Oaxaca), the Zapotec and Mixtec people bred the insects for the color, potency, and amount of dye they produced.

The cochineal farmers would scrape the insects off the cactus using stiff brushes, then dry them in the sun or ovens before the scales are ground and turned into dye scales. It took 70,000 dried insects to make a pound of dye. This unique red colored textiles, furs, feathers, baskets, and pots. It was also used in medicines, cosmetics, and as ink by historical scribes.

When the Spanish conquistadors invaded Mesoamerica, it didn’t take long for them to notice the dazzling color.

When Europe Saw Red

Historians don’t know exactly when the Spanish invaders learned the cochineal insect was responsible for creating this dye. “We have accounts of conquistadors—the Spanish—coming into Tenochtitlán, the central city of the Aztec empire. And one of the things in the marketplaces that they were really struck by were the range of dyes,” Greenfield says. “So that’s probably when they first saw cochineal.”

Shortly after the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán fell in 1520, the Spanish started shipping the dried insect scales back to Spain. Soon, bright red fabrics spread throughout Europe. The dye's popularity increased after the colorful products reached Venice in the early 1540s, thanks to the Venetians' fondness for vibrant hues. It wasn't long before Europe's royalty began to covet the red fabrics dyed from the cochineal insect.

At that time, producing silk and vividly dyed cloth was an incredibly lucrative business. Selling cloth was a mammoth industry, comparable to the tech industry today—but merely producing raw materials such as wool didn't fetch a major profit. To really make money, manufacturers needed to get their hands on the dyes.

Spain, realizing it had a precious product, cornered the market on cochineal red. It became one of their most valuable exports from Mexico, second only to silver. They even put laws on the books to protect cochineal—and the mysterious bug that created it. “You couldn’t take gold or silver or cochineal out of Spain, without authorization, on pain of death,” Greenfield says.

The country also had strong censorship policies to control information about cochineal and keep it from other countries. For years, Europeans remained unaware that the dye came from an insect. Many wondered if the dried cochineal that formed dyes was some sort of plant or animal. Once the secret source of Spain’s coveted dye eventually got out, it wasn’t long before Europe’s monarchies were plotting ways to fight—and kill—for it.

A Dye Worth Dying For

An image from 1777 depicting an indigenous person collecting cochineal insects.
An image from 1777 depicting an indigenous person collecting cochineal insects. / Newberry Library: Vault Ayer MS 1031, Wikimedia Commons // Pubic Domain

In 1585, two merchant families, the Capponis of Florence and the Maluendas of Burgos, created a cochineal cartel that spanned most of Europe, stealing much of the continent’s supply at the time and raiding incoming shipments.

England, meanwhile, used pirates. Between 1570–1577, at least 13 different English raiding parties sailed to the Caribbean in search of cochineal, with dozens more following in the coming decades. The famous English poet John Donne was on one of these voyages when a ship carrying cochineal exports from Mexico was raided; he mentioned the insect in one of his poems, writing

“As Pirats, which doe know That there came weak ships fraught with Cutchannel The men board them.”

France opted for spies instead of pirates, sending them several times to try to steal live cochineal insects over the centuries. Only one ever succeeded: Nicolas-Joseph Thiery de Mononville, a botanist who set sail for Mexico in 1776 to pilfer the coveted cochineals. Though he was able to smuggle some insects to France, he was unable to keep them alive.

The Frenchman wasn't the only one who struggled to farm the cochineal. The indigenous people who cultivated the insect back in the Americas had spent centuries developing their methods. The Spanish, despite originally wanting to farm the cochineal on plantations, soon realized that wasn't a viable option. To farm the insects, someone had to have an in-depth knowledge of its needs—and the very particular climate of North and South America's deserts

This wound up benefiting the indigenous people who had farmed them for so long. Because the dye was such a valuable commodity for the Spanish Empire, the monarchy allowed the families who had been harvesting the insects for generations to remain on their ancestral farms. “If you look at those regions that were producing cochineal, there is higher cultural survival and higher language survival there,” Greenfield says, “and I think that this insect really is crucial to that cultural survival for them.”

The Cochineal Insect Today

In Europe, the craze for the cochineal color lasted centuries. The vibrant hue was a great way of telegraphing a person’s power; soldiers and royals donned garments colored with its signature scarlet. But as Spain lost exclusive control of the cochineal insects and more countries were able to produce the dye, demand slowly began to fall. The invention of synthetic dyes—which were far cheaper and easier to produce—further hastened the color's decline. 

But cochineal red never really went away, and has even experienced a revival in the 20th century: Today, the insect is farmed mostly in Peru, and its signature red dye is still found in cosmetics and food coloring. Its use in modern times is not without trouble; in 2012, when Starbucks made headlines for using it to color their Strawberry and Creme Frappuccino, some vegetarians were unhappy to discover the fruity drink included insects.