When the Spanish first came to Mexico they found an insect so valuable that only gold topped it as the most desired and valuable Mexican export for 250 years. It produced a dye called cochineal red after the bug. Red dyes in Europe and Asia during the middle ages were poor, rare and very expensive. It cost 10 times more to dye cloth the poorest red than the finest blue. So the color red in Europe became synonymous with rich and powerful. Now the Spaniards had located an exquisite red dye which was plentiful in Mexico.
The Spanish kept the bug top secret with a horrible death as penalty for leaking information about the dye. As this bug dye exploded onto the European market scientists made it their quest to find the source. Some attribute the rise of modern science to the financing given to scientists to find the source of this new red dye. Early microscopes were used to research this mysterious dye controlled by the Spanish government. The British used the dye for their famous “red coat” uniforms and were desperate to find the source. The story of Cochineal Red includes spies, scientific adventure, sunken treasure ships, and warfare. In 1766 3 Spanish ships sank off Louisiana with 600,000 pounds of Cochineal. In today’s dollars that lost dye was worth $45,000,000.
The dye is carminic acid which was given by God to the female Cochineal Bug for protection. This lazy little bug is a prickly pear parasite. These little suckers attach to a cactus and live up to 3 years with their small proboscis sucking nutrients from the cactus. They cover themselves in wax fibers produced from special ducts in their abdomen for protection from the elements. An amazing little bug created by an amazing God.