It is a parasitic bug that is 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 color, known as carmine, is derived from an acid that the oval-shaped insect produces to fend off predators.
“Most of the cochineal sales are used by the food and cosmetic industries. Some of it is used for textiles,” said Juan Cazorla, a biologist who is trying to stimulate cultivation of the insect on the island of Lanzarote.
“We are trying to show various craftsmen on 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 United States,” he said.
Cazorla, who works with the Milena association to increase cochineal production, said producers need 3kg to 3.5kg of cochineal to make a kilogram of air-dried produce, the raw material for the dye.
The insects, about 6mm 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. However, farmers help them out by infesting plants with small “mother” bags of spawning cochineal.
They are placed on the cacti so that the insects stick to it. After 60 to 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 coloring.
The farming cooperative in the Mala-Guatiza growing region exported 20,000kg of dry Lanzarote cochineal to a German factory making carmine for food in April last year.
Despite the potential riches, cochineal cultivation — which dates back to pre-Columbian Mexico — has declined in past years in the Canary Islands.
“To my knowledge there are 20 to 30 hectares of cultivated plantations, mostly in the Mala-Guatiza growing region,” Cazorla said.
They produce 2,000kg to 3,000kg of dry cochineal a year, well down from the 14,000 harvested in 1980, he said.
Canary Islands producers have a tough time competing against Peru, the leading supplier which meets most of world demand, followed by producers Chile, Bolivia and Mexico.
Dry cochineal were sold to Germany last year for 50 euros (US$69) per kilogram, Cazorla said, but about 15 years ago the Canary Islands made hardly any sales because Peru’s prices were sharply lower, he said.
Cochineal production remains therefore almost a family business because there are few profits from dry cochineal sales alone. The Milana association is therefore encouraging growers to exploit the tourism appeal of their farms.