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Carmine, or cochineal, is a naturally occurring, deep red dye which has been used for thousands of years. It is laboriously extracted from the tiny gravid females of cochineal insect (Dactylopius species) which infest certain cacti. Approximately 155,000 females are required to yield a single kg of carminic acid. The harvesting process is a labor and time intensive endeavor, as the insects are removed by hand. Despite the difficulty of producing carmine, the colorant is still in wide-spread demand. Naturally extracted carmine is an FDA approved additive, and is used in food, confections, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.

 

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Yield of cochineal insects in the wild (and hence carmine) is adversely affected by the presence of various naturally occurring predators, as well as by cold temperatures or rainy conditions. In light of these difficulties in cochineal cultivation, there is a need for a less labor, time and resource intensive method which is not limited by location or weather. Moreover, cochineal insect cultivation and yields are dependent on the health of the host cacti. This aspect of cochineal farming is especially challenging, since cochineal insects are parasites which are capable of killing the host cactus. Consequently, cochineal farmers must ensure that a large supply (typically more than 10,000 acres) of cactus host is sustained at all times.

 

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A little background: Cochineal insects occur naturally as parasites on cacti of the genus Opuntia, for example, the common prickly pear. At present, cultivation of cochineal insects for large scale harvest is accomplished through collection in the wild, or by careful inoculation of plantation cacti with infected cactus pads or with females which are introduced into the cacti. After inoculation, the cochineal insects must be protected from predators and from harmful weather conditions during their 3 month growth cycle. Carminic acid, the color ingredient in carmine, is naturally produced during the life cycle of the cochineal insect, which is really a number of species belonging to the genus of Dactylopius. For the insect, it is used to repel predators such as ants.

 

 

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