You may have heard of carmine red, sometimes used in paints or in food as a red pigment coloring. Carmine red is the chemical extrapolation of cochineal red, a classic form of organic dye made by pulverizing the exoskeletons and egg castings of the cochineal insect, found largely in Arizona and Mexico.
Research indicates it can take up to 70,000 crushed insects to produce about a pound of cochineal dye powder, which can then be used to dye yarn, fabric, and other materials. It’s even used today for both fabric production and in a variety of foods and drinks you may eat on a regular basis.
I am going to harvest and cultivate my own cochineal for Folk Fibers. I am also interested in visiting a cochineal farm operating currently in Oaxaca, Mexico. I enjoyed reading this article about the detailed process on raising Cochineal in Oaxaca.
My first with it was in college, in the SCAD fibers department. It produces brilliant orange-red pigments, as well as horific smells when boiling the insects. Living in Austin, I have access to this dye source right in my backyard! I remembered seeing the cochineal insects all over the prickly pear cactus last year but I didn't make note to exactly when they appeared, so I asked "Mr. Smarty Plants"! "Ask Mr. Smarty Plants" is a free service provided by the staff and volunteers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, located here in Austin. I am very impressed with the thorough answer I received!
My Question: I am a fibers artist that would like to harvest the cochineal bugs from the prickly pear cactus. I would like to know what time of year should I expect to find the cochineal bugs around the Austin area?
The Answer: "Although I've often seen the fluffy white evidence of the cochineal bugs on prickly pear cactus, I guess I hadn't really paid attention to when they were most abundant so I checked with an entomologist, Valerie Bugh, and here is what she said:"
"The females live inside the white fluff and squishing their bodies is what produces the red dye. The highest concentration would be when the fluff is most numerous and each piece is rather big and clean looking, indicating mature females inside. Because it is a slightly water-resistant waxy substance, the white stuff tends to last a long time, but I've seen old remains that are dried out and wouldn't be very productive because the insect inside is dead. The time of year for the best harvests will vary depending on rainfall and temperature. If we have some very hard freezes, that will delay the insects' development, as will heavy rains or scorching summer droughts. I suspect that conditions are more important than dates."
"Howard Garrett's The Dirt Doctor.com page on the cochineal says that females are harvested when they are about 90 days old. Considering that mating and egg laying would happen when the weather is warm enough, say mid-March in the Central Texas Area, it would be early to mid-summer before the females would be ready to harvest (mid-June to late July)"