Nocheztli : The Cochineal Beetle


From Nahuatl “nochtli” (the opuntia/nopal cactus) and “eztli” (blood)

Another product introduced to the world courtesy of the nopal is the bright red colourant known as cochineal. Cochineal is produced from the dried bodies of a female insect of the dactylopius genus which is a parasitic scale insect that lives off the nopal.

Only the male of the species has wings

This insect is farmed and its cultivation potentially dates to around 1000AD during the time of the Toltec.

During the period of the conquest Sahagún noted the production of a dye from pillbugs which were grown on the tuna (nochtli). This dye was called nocheztli or “the blood of the tuna”. The intense red dye soon found export potential. It found its way to Asia through the Philippines from the port of Acapulco and from Vera Cruz it entered Spain and then into the depths of Europe and the Persian Empire. Fortunes were made from this insect. It even found its way to Australia with the English in 1788 (Greenfield 2005). Australia’s arid landscape was the ideal habitat for the nopal, so ideal in fact that the plant soon became a noxious weed and infested more than 60 million acres of prime farming land. It is known as the most invasive plant ever to be introduced to Australia. This was turned around in the 1920’s by the introduction of the Cactoblastis cactorum moth whose larval form eats the cactus. The moth soon died out when the spread of the cactus was brought under control.

The State of Queensland, Department of Agriculture and Fisheries

The cochineal industry however did not fare as well as the nopal and it quickly died out. The use of the dye declined with the appearance of artificial dyes discovered in Europe at the end of the 19th century. Its use declined so sharply that is knowledge was almost completely lost. It was only kept alive and preserved by local tradition (in Mexico).

The English were interested in the dye because their military uniforms were bright red (1). The dye was not only used, both historically and in modern times, for textiles and ceremonial clothing; it was used as an ink for codices and a paint for ceramics, murals, sculptures and temples and as a cosmetic for staining lips and as rouge.

Cochineal used as an ink in an Aztec Codex
(Codex Borgia)

Its most common use these days is as a food colouring (2). Its use as a colouring has been linked to hyperactivity and has been suspected of embryo toxicity (Eady 2004) (Skurray 2007) although studies in rats and mice showed no toxicity (Grant etal).

  1. the English soldiers were colloquially known as Redcoats due to the colour of their uniforms.
  2. Colour 120 (cochineal-carmine-carminic acid) Natural Red 4

Medical Uses of Nocheztli  

According to Kings American Dispensary (of 1898) cochineal extracts are anodyne and antispasmodic and were used in whooping-cough and neuralgic affections. It was said to specifically influence the entire urinary tract and the Dispensary directs small doses in renal colic, creating copious voidings of clear, limpid urine, due to renal capillary relaxation, and in vesical tenesmus (1) and urinal retention. More specifically it was for “Colica renalis, with dark-coloured urine and pain extending down ureters to bladder”

  1. Vesical tenesmus refers to the feeling of incomplete emptying of the bladder following urination. Vesical tenesmus is caused by urogenital diaphragm muscle spasms.

The suggested dosage was 10 to 15 drops of mother tincture be added to 4 fluid ounces of water, and a teaspoonful administered every 2 hours.

Modern studies (Evangelina etal 2010) suggest that cochineal extracts show a strong antioxidant free radical scavenging capacity similar to that of known antioxidants quercetin and ascorbic acid.

These insects are farmed. The females are harvested at certain times and the dye is said to be a deep carmine red before the bug breeds and a redder black after it has ended its breeding cycle.

During the wet season the bugs are protected from the rain and transferred onto unaffected nopal in the dry season so they can breed in a new environment.

Cages containing egg-laden cochineal scales used to infest nopal cactus pads for production of cochinilla.
San Bartolo Coyotepec, Oaxaca, Mexico

Some 70,000 cochineal insects are required to manufacture a single pound of the dye.

These insects live in large colonies on the nopal. The females appear as a white powdery substance adhering to the cladodes of the Opuntia.

Female cochineal insects on the nopal

El Mante tequila (NOM 1529) has produced a silver (blanco/plata) tequila which has been coloured with a cochineal extract.

It is a copper pot distilled tequila from the highlands (Los Altos) of central Jalisco. It is a true tequila being that it is produced from the blue agave Tequilana Weber but the addition of cochineal is a little confusing as it is my understanding that by Law tequila can have no additives other than cane sugar in its manufacture.

The tequila however is delicious and was quite a surprise to my Mexican friends living in Australia.


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