In this photo, you can see some kind of fluffy, white specks on the paddle of a cactus. Those are scale insects, microscopic bugs that like to cover themselves in balls of white wax and nibble on prickly pear. You can also see a fingertip smeared in bright red goo. That's what happens when you squish up scale insects. Humans have been doing this for hundreds of years, using the insects' bodies to create a striking, natural dye.
More commonly known as cochineal, the dye turns up in everything from sausage to yogurt. Typically, you'll hear scale insects described as "beetles". They aren't. And that had given me a totally incorrect mental image of what they looked like, so I thought it would be cool to share a couple of Flickr photos that show the insects in their natural habitat — both in their living and, er, more "processed" forms.
Here's a close-up shot of those white cocoons where scale insects live.
And here's a picture of scale insects ground up by hand into a dye powder. If you want to learn more about traditional Mexican dye-making techniques that use the bugs, there's a lot of good info in a travel diary by Amy Butler Greenfield.
Periodically, somebody freaks out about the presence of smooshed bug in the American food supply and you'll see a flurry of outraged posts on Facebook and Twitter. (That's happened three times that I've noticed since I started writing for BoingBoing in 2009.) Now you know what those bugs look like. Want more? I'd recommend checking out an old post by blogger and entomologist Bug Girl that looks at the history and safety of cochineal dye and offers TONS of great links and further reading.
Image: DSC_3336, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from mhbishop's photostream
Image: Cochineal Bug larvae. Dactylopius cocchus, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from gails_pictures's photostream
Image: The Fine Cochineal , a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from madame_furie's photostream
A better understanding how a sperm swims its way toward an egg could help inform new treatments for male infertility. Researchers from the University of York have now come up with a mathematical formula to model how large numbers of moving sperm interact with fluid they’re swimming through. From the University: By analysing the head […]
Dr Gale Ridge is a public entomologist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, where an average of 23 people a day call, write or visit; an increasing proportion of them aren’t inquiring about actual insects, they’re suffering from delusional parasitosis, and they’re desperate and even suicidal.
Biologist Nipam Patel and his team at UC Berkeley study how butterflies develop wing shape and color by performing surgery on caterpillars, creating translucent windows in their cocoons.
What could be more fun than a slingshot that shoots tiny airplanes? A slingshot that shoots tiny glowing airplanes of course! These toy planes are outfitted with ultra-bright LEDs, so you can fly all night without losing them in the trees.Whether you are a regular-sized child, or an overgrown adult one, these light-up flyers offer […]
You know the drill. You go to the dentist and they ask you how often you floss. You lie through your teeth and say, “every day!” (Bonus points if you have some cilantro or chives stuck in your gums from lunch). You don’t want to keep up the charade any longer, but rubbing that tiny strand […]
The Raspberry Pi Foundation has done outstanding work packing a fully capable desktop computer into a package the size of a deck cards—especially one that only costs $35. But if you already have a working laptop, why should you care? Oh, how much you have to learn. Besides operating well as a compact digital media hub, […]