The females cluster together on the cactus leaf feeding on its juices http://www.cochinealdye.com/html/biology.html
The male lives only long enough to fertilize the females (Many, many females…) http://www.pestproducts.com/cochineal-bug.htm
Lifecycle After the eggs hatch, the male nymphs produce a white sticky substance which they use to have the wind blow them to another cactus. Males will then develop wings in order to be able to find females. Females crawl to a good spot on the leaf (Usually surrounding their mother)and bite into it where they will stay until laying their eggs after they have been fertilized.
What makes these insects so important? Females and eggs produce a bitter, astringent chemical substance that is a predator deterrent. This substance is called carminic acid or carmine. It is particularly effective against ants. The pyralid moth (Laetilia coccidivora) eats cochineal and stores carminic acid in its gut to repel predatory ants.
The bugs are collected and dried bugs are ground up… http://hilobrow.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/MCI-Cochineal-prep.jpg
And then the powder can be stored and used as needed Photo credit : Stefanie Tietz
Cochineal is best for dyeing natural fibers such as wool and silk. http://www.cochinealdye.com/index.html
Which can then be made into textiles or rugs. Photo credit: Stefanie Tietz
An example of different hues (on right) Photo credit: Stefanie Tietz
Cochineal color (Carmine) is Water- soluble Resists degradation over time Light and heat stable Oxidation-resistant Generally considered to be more stable than most synthetic dyes. Neither toxic nor carcinogenic (but can cause anaphylatic shock in allergic individuals)
Because it is non-toxic it can be used as food coloring Photo credit : Stefanie Tietz
Cochineal Has been harvested in Mexico since about 1200 BC (In Peru since 1500 BC). The Mixtec people were valued by the Spanish after the conquest for their skill in cochineal production. It was highly prized by the Spaniards and in value considered second to silver. It was used as currency both by indigenous rulers, as well as Spanish conquerors.
Ancient codex showing tribute payments due in cochineal codex Mendoza folio 43
The Mixtec Nochiztlan was a major Mixtec center and source for cochineal in pre-Hispanic times. The name means Place of cactus blood. Coixtlahuaca: Seat of Mixtec royal power and focus of important manuscripts and maps. (Codices). Mayor trading center for cochineal.