Cochineal Scale Juice

Squished bug art

Cochineal colonies on prickly pear

The prickly pear cactus out front appears frosted. Globs of white froth are dabbed along the edges of the thorny pads and evenly coat several budding fruits. Not butter cream, this waxy substance is secreted from the abdomen of female cochineal scale insects. Cozy underneath their self-made covering, the tiny quarter-inch bugs are protected from dry heat and predators and are free to feast on their host, the Opuntia cactus (prickly pear). Further protection from predators is provided by the carminic acid that has made the cochineal scale a hot commodity since at least the 14th century. The red fluid found inside the bug makes a rich red dye. Aztec and Mayan people used the juices of the cochineal scale to produce brilliantly colored fabrics, blankets, shields and body paint. Early explorers took prickly pear plants with established cochineal colonies back to the Old World and had success growing the cacti in Spain. British military uniforms and robes for Roman Catholic cardinals were dyed with the scale’s juices. During colonial times cochineal scale was Mexico’s second most valued export after silver. Today cochineal scale is still cultivated on stands of prickly pear in Mexico. The cochineal’s carminic acid is a common ingredient in food coloring and cosmetics……. yum.
Female cochineal scales are sedentary to say the least. Having no legs and no wings they live out their lives in a cluster of cochineals each with their beaklike mouthpart stuck firmly into the flesh of the host prickly pear. I can’t see they’ve hurt my plant any, but the Master Gardeners suggest blasting the prickly pear with a hose if you feel you must remove the scales. I sort of like the frosted look and had fun making my painting, squishing the bugs and their wax on paper with a toothpick.
The males of the species do grow wings in late summer and fly out from the colony to mate, looking like clouds of pink and white gnats. The males give up eating after growing their wings, and after mating they die. The eggs hatch into spry six-legged nymphs called crawlers. The crawlers make their way to fresh territory on the cactus and set up a new colony, or some move to the edge of the pad where they secrete waxy tendrils to catch the breeze and float to a new plant. Given the high percentage of colonies on the edges of the pads of my prickly pear, the nymphs must often fall prey to their biological clocks, as becoming mature means molting their legs. At that point, if you are a cochineal scale bug, especially a female, your options are limited.
Sources: 50 Common Insects of the Southwest by Carl Olson
A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert edited by Steven J. Phillips and Patricia Wentworth Comus


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