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A Short Story About Dead Bugs (with a happy ending)

Cochineal is a traditional red dye dating back to the pre-Columbian period of Mexico. The dye is obtained from the cochineal insects that live on cactus plants. The pigment comes from the little dead bodies of these bugs, which contain a bitter chemical called carminic acid. It is a very effective repellent to predators and also produces lovely shades of red, purple and pink. When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico, they were astonished and thrilled at the intensity of the cochineal pigment which was better than the dyes used in the Old  World. Needless to say, Spain established a monopoly in its trade and made huge profits from its sale to friendly countries. This did not include England which, of course, was an enemy to Spain and caused great damage to the textile industry there.

Cochineal insect colony on a prickly pear cactus

Cochineal insect colony on a prickly pear cactus

I took and ounce of the dessicated bugs and covered them with water in a saucepan, though not one I would ever use again for cooking. When the water hit the cochineal it immediately turned pink, a very promising sign. I simmered the dead bug concoction on the stove for about 10 minutes, and I can’t even begin to describe the funky smell in the kitchen. I had opened all the windows and back door, and turned on the exhaust fan over the stove, but it took about a half hour to clear the air. The cochineal bugs were left in the pan to soak overnight.


Packet of insects and a food scale for correct weight

Cold water on the cochineal, notice the spot of pink on the newspaper.

Cold water on the cochineal, notice the spot of pink on the newspaper

Funky smelling bug stew

Funky smelling bug stew

I gathered rose leaves, some yellow mum flowers, and walnut leaves and soaked them in my rusty nail solution (an iron mordant.)


The leaves and flowers were arranged on 2 wool gauze scarves from Dharma Trading Co.  Normally they would then be rolled into a very tight bundle to insure maximum contact between the plant material and the fabric. This time, however, I tied them a little more loosely so that the dye from the cochineal would find its way all the way to the center of the bundle.


Bundled wool gauze

Bundled wool gauze

Ready for the dye pot! The bugs, which now looked a little like re-hydrated raisins, were strained out of the dye liquor and added to a pot of water. I let the bundles simmer in the dye pot at 180 degrees F for an hour. After the funky smelling kitchen episode, I went to Target and bought a hotplate to use outside…


Re-hydrated insects

Dye pot... OUTSIDE

Dye pot… OUTSIDE

The bundles looked beautiful after the dye bath, and seemed to contain the promise of some exciting colors and images. I let them cure overnight, and unwrapped them the next day. At some point I must try letting them cure longer… when I have more patience.


The finished piece…

purple scarf


Dead bug story, part 2… coming up!


  1. I saw cochineal described as an organic dye on another blog for the first time today. I’d never thought of it in those terms. You’ve achieved some lovely results with yours.


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