Sunday, July 24, 2011

Dactylopius coccus, a good plague against a bad plague

The cochineal carmine, Dactylopius coccus, is a small Mexican insect parasitic of the cactus of the Opuntia sort. Before the appearance of synthetic colourings this cochineal was widely bred to obtain the red colouring carmine, also called grana cochineal, red natural 4, crimson lake, nocheztli or simply E120. The carmine already was used by the pre-Hispanic Indians to dye their clothes and hair, to color with mural paintings their palaces and religious buildings and to make up the face of the priests. 

At the beginning of May of year 2007 I visited for the first time the gorgeous canary island of La Palma. After enjoying the ebullient vegetation of North half of the island I went towards the south, much more dry and warm. In Tazacorte I parked the car next to a bar where I took a very good coffee with canary cookies. I took soon my dear compact camera and I get ready to photograph all the interesting plants that were in the streets, gardens and orchards of that one beautiful town.

The first that called my attention was feral ferns of Pteris vittata species that grew in the cracks of rocks that bordered a street. Meters further on in a curve very closed there was a vigorous Opuntia ficus-indica cultivated in a particular orchard, whose shovels seemed snow covers. As soon as I approached I knew that one was the famous cochineal of the carmine one. It had never seen it and my joy was very great. Luckily the shovels were around my head and it was not difficult to me to take a few photos them. The unique problem was the cars that circulated in the heat of urban helmet at a high speed and to having stuck roadside ditch nor sidewalk they almost did not take the curve to the wall from the orchard. With little friendly gestures they made sound the horn and they rebuked me furious. They had every reason, but I could not be gone of La Palma without a few photos of these so famous small animals. After than more 50 years ingesting the dyestuff of its abdomens finally I saw its source.

Ice creams strawberry color, yogurts strawberry color, jams of strawberry, cherry and raspberry with carmine addition to reinforce the red color, the red gelatin, the famous liquor Campari, vermout Martini Rosso, some inlays, the substitutes of the crab meat, the red caramels, famous m& m's chocolate, the cereals Kelloggs with strawberry flavor, the juices of red fruits, some sauces of tomato, the medicinal capsules and tablets dyed of red, the syrups with strawberry  flavor, the antibiotic syrups for children of red color, the graze tooth red, red buccal elixirs and other many nutritional, pharmaceutical and cosmetic products, like lipstick, shade of eyes and pink dusts of makeup, take the colouring red carmine of the cochinela Dactylopius coccus.

Small colonies of females of cochineal carmine on a shovel of Opuntia ficus-indica. Extending the photos with a double click are better the details.

After decades of declivity it returns to increase the interest by this invertebrate. The increasing rejection to the colouring chemicals coverall in the nutritional industry and the recent height of the natural methods of biological fight for the control of the plagues has made resurge these deposits of cochineals coverall in Peru that 84% of the world-wide demand produce, followed by the Canary Islands with 8%, Chile with 6% and Bolivia with 2%. They export so much dyestuff as the nymphs cheers of Dactylopius to be used in the biological control of the cactus of the Opuntia sort that have invaded extensive regions of the planet. These American plants, when not having natural enemies outside Central America and South America, are feral with facility in the countries where they are introduced and they get to occupy thousands of hectares, disabling the pasturing and culture of these earth and putting in serious danger the native flora that cannot compete with these so aggressive plants. The deliberate infestation of opuntias with nymphs of cochineal, that is to say, their use like contraplague, seems to obtain spectacular results, managing to reduce to its growth and expansion until bearable levels for the ecosystem.

Colony of females of cochineal carmine in different stages from growth. As much the males as the females feed themselves on the sap of opuntias and to arrive at her they perforate cuticule of the shovels with a buccal sting in the form of needle for injectable and suck therefore the rich and nutritious sap of these American cactus to whom they debilitate and they shorten the life. Opuntias severely infested languishes quickly and dies to the few months, not surpassing in no case the six years.

 Another colony of females of Dactylopius coccus. This insect has a very noticeable sexual dimorphism. The males are small and winged. They reach the maturity weeks before the females and fly during the night of shovel in shovel to the search of receptive females, which lack wings and remain all their life in the same shovel. When they find a mature female stimulates it with its front legs and if this one accepts the male then this one is placed to a side of the female, it looks for one of the two genital openings that this one under its abdomen has, introduces the sperm and fertilizes eggs of the ovary of the same side, happens soon to the other side and repeats the same steps to fertilize eggs of the other ovary. Then the gravid female quickly increases of size and its voluminous full egg abdomen surrounded by carmine, which turns out to be a mortal poison for its natural predators, serving to it this way like protection not to be devoured.

 When the eggs are mature they leave the genital apparatus of the female and enter a species of marsupiums or bags formed by membranous expansions that the female has in the ventral face of its abdomen, where they hatch and reach the phase of nymphs. Finalized this stage the female give birth the nymphs on shovel of opuntia and these begin to suck sap to increase of size.  

Extending the photo with a double click smallest nymphs can be seen just borned around their mothers. When they have reached a certain size secretes waxiness filaments similar to those of the poplar seeds and hopes patiently that a gust of wind raises it and takes it until another opuntia. In this phase they receive the name of migrant nymphs and its system of transport by the wind is called anemocoria, very used by the seeds of many plants. If they manage to fall on a shovel, either of the same opuntia or distant other the more, perforates cuticule with their buccal sting and begins to feed itself and to increase of size until reaching the maturity, moment at which they are fertilized during the night by a flying male come from another opuntia and returned to begin its cycle of the life.

Near image of several cochineals of carmine egg floods with its bodies covered with white waxiness grudges that protect them of solar rays. The right several tiny nymphs just born with long legs see themselves that allow to move them by opuntia to the search of a noninfested shovel. If they do not find a good place in the same opuntia, then they are transformed into migrant nymphs and they fly with the aid of the wind until another one opuntia.

If an adult cochineal is squashed with the fingers blood turns out to be full of immersed eggs in carmine liquid of an alive red color. The spots that are in the fingers take several days in disappearing.

Some people develop allergy to this dyestuff. The lipsticks are especially dangerous. The ample use of the carmine one in multitude of foods, drinks, medecines and cosmetics does almost impossible to avoid the exhibition to the allergen.

Also the extrict vegetarians have a serious problem with this dyestuff. They are themselves forced at great length to read the labels of the components of all the foods and drinks, especially those that have a suspicious red color, where with luck their manufacturers limit themselves to put "natural colouring E120". 

The substance that gives the red color the carmine one is the carminic acid. This dyestuff is obtained drying the gravid females to the sun after taking by friction the white waxiness grudges that protect that them of solar rays, that is to say, are skinned and cooked alive. Once dry they are crushed to turn them into a red dust. This carmine raw ones can be commercialized so what or can be purified through several chemical processes until obtaining carminic acid with a high degree of purity. Logically to greater purity greater is the price reached in the markets. Best the carmine one contains a 22´5% of carminic acid and receives the name of carmine premium, it is follow by the first quality carmine with a 19´5% and the second quality carmine with a 10% of purity.
Therefore it is that the women paint the lips and the contour of eyes with the entrails of gravid cochineals, ecological fabrics are dyed of a beautiful red color blood with gravid cochineals, when we chewed a red chewing-gum we are crushing entrails of gravid cochineals, when we savored a substantial red hamburger or a delicious ice cream of fruits of the forest we are eating the entrails of gravid cochineals and when we rinsed the mouth with a red elixir we soaked our teeth, tongue, palate, gums and throat with entrails of gravid cochineals. Uffff, we hope that the eggs do not born in our internal and the nymphs do not put in mistaken marsupium of our anatomy.

Happy dreams, friendly!


  1. oh my god thank you for that!gross!

  2. Dear readers:

    The sucking insect Dactylopius coccus is devastating populations of either cultivated, or natives Cactaceae in Brazil.

    In continents where there are none native cacti, the insect may be useful, by not here.


    Celso Lago-Paiva

    Specialist in ecology and management of non-native invasive plants in natural ecosystems
    Minas Gerais Stete, Brazil

  3. Thanks for the information, Celso.