Variety

Spanish island grows bugs for dye

PTI Mala (Spain) | Updated on September 12, 2011

It’s a parasitic bug that’s barely bigger than a flea, but the cochineal is trying to make a comeback in Spain’s Canary Islands where it is cultivated for its crimson dye.

The deep red colour, known as carmine, is derived from an acid that the oval-shaped insect produces to fend off predators.

“Most of the cochineal sales go to the food and cosmetic industries. Some of it is used for textiles,” said Juan Cazorla, a biologist trying to stimulate cultivation of the insect in the island of Lanzarote.

“We are trying to show various craftsmen in the island how to apply it in handicrafts to increase the value of their products and we are advertising this natural dye among other artists and craftsmen in other countries such as France, Britain, Turkey and the US,” he said.

Cazorla, who works with the Milena association to increase cochineal production, said producers need 3-3.5 kg of cochineals to make a kg of air-dried produce, the raw material for the dye.

The insects, about 6 mm (slightly less than a quarter-inch) long, could be mistaken for tiny white stains on the leaves of the cacti that they live off.

They feed off the cacti’s sap, and can spread naturally across plantations. But farmers help them out by infesting plants with small “mother” bags of spawning cochineals.

They are placed on the cacti so that the insects stick to it. After 60-70 days they have grown enough to be harvested with metal blades.

After another 10-20 days of drying, they are placed in bags and stored, sometimes for years, before the carmine is extracted for use as a natural dye on products unsuited to synthetic colouring.

Published on September 12, 2011

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