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Cochineal (Coccus Cacti), native to the New World, was used by the Aztecs for dyeing and painting and was brought to Europe in the sixteenth century following the Spanish conquest. Cochineal is a natural dye-stuff used for the production of scarlet, crimson, orange and other tints, and for the preparation of lake and carmine.

It consist of the females of Coccus cacti, an insect of the family Coccidae of the order Hemiptera, which feeds upon various species of the Cactaceae, more especially the nopal plant, Opuntia coccinellifera, a native of Mexico and Peru.

The dye was introduced into Europe from Mexico. It appears not to have been known in Italy so late as the year 1548, though the art of dyeing then flourished there. The male of the cochineal insect is half the size of the female, and, unlike it, is devoid of nutritive apparatus; it has long white wings, and a body of a deep red colour, terminated by two diverging setae. The female is apterous, and has a dark-brown plano-convex body; it is found in the proportion of 150 to 200 to one of the male insect.

Cochineal is now furnished not only by Mexico and Peru, but also by Algiers and southern Spain. It is collected thrice in the seven months of the season. There are two principal varieties – silver cochineal, which has a grayish-red colour, and the furrows of the body covered with a white bloom or fine down; and black cochineal, which is of a dark reddish brown, and destitute of bloom. Granilla is an inferior kind, gathered from uncultivated plants.

Cochineal owes its tinctorial power to the presence of a substance termed cochinealin or carminic, which may be prepared from the aqueous decoction of cochineal.

It was more than a century before Europeans discovered silver cochineal the only natural, tin oxide, that would deposit the pigment on wool or other fiber so that it would not wash off. Eventually the bugs were imported and grown in Spain, Italy, North Africa and other countries where the cactus can be grown. They are still grown in Mexico and India to furnish the permanent brilliant carmine for foods, drinks, cosmetics and artists’ colors.

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