Cochineal and Kermes Reds

We discussed the madder root and reds that derived from that source. Here is another brilliant red made from insects!

Carmine Lake and many other brilliant reds originate with the Cochineal, or Kermes insect.  This is a small scale insect that infests a host plant.  Cochineal is native to the Middle and South American continent and was used by the Aztecs for dying and painting.  In the 16th century, the Spaniards brought their techniques back to Europe. They insect prickly pear cacti in clusters and appear as fuzzy white lumps on a sea of smooth green.  The insects are harvested by hand.  Extraction of the insect material is boiling the insects with ammonia or sodium carbonate; later alum is added to the solution, filtered and precipitated with citric acid, borax, or lime.

Similarly is the Kermes insect that also is used to make Carmine Lake.  Kermes scale insects are native to the Mediterranean area and infest trees, such as European oaks.  This dye was used on Hebrew tabernacle curtains and in Phoenician Art.  However, Kermes Lake is more fugitive than Cochineal Lake. The term kermes derived from Medieval Latin cremesinus (also source of French kermès and Spanish carmes), from Arabic qirmiz “kermes,” and from Sanskrit krmi-ja, a compound meaning “(red dye) produced by a worm.” Kermes lake is a pigment of a bright red color obtained from kermesic acid.

Kermes lake in another languages: English (kermes, kermes lake, kermes vermilio, kermes berry, kermin berry, kermesic acid (chemical compound), crimson lake, crimson lake, crimson, grain lake); Spanish (carmesí, rojo de grana, grana quermes, cármeso, carmesín, cremesino); French (kermès, cramoisi, crimson lake, sang de saint Jean, crammoisi; and Polish (karmin, lazur karminowy, karmin czerwcowy, lazur polski).


Here is a 19th century recipe for Superfine Carmine of Amsterdam:  Heat 6 buckets of rain-water, and when it commences to boil throw in 2 lbs. of finely-powdered cochineal; continue boiling 2 hours, and then add 3 oz. of pure water, and immediately afterwards 4 oz. of binoxalate of potash. Boil again 1 minute, then remove the vessel from the fire, and let the decoction stand 4 hours. Draw off the supernatant liquid with a syphon into numerous basins, and put them aside upon a shelf for about 3 weeks, at the end of which time a mouldy pellicle will be formed, which is to be carefully removed with a whalebone, or by means of a small sponge attached to the end of a stick. The water is then run off through a syphon, which must reach to the bottom of the pans, the carmine being so compact that it adheres. This carmine is dried in the shade, and is of an intensely brilliant hue.

Taking this dried pigment and making 19th Century Carmine Lake
Boil 2 oz. of cochineal in 1 pt. of water, filter the solution through paper, and add 2 oz. of pearlash dissolved in 1/2 pint of warm water and filtered through paper. Make a solution of cuttlebone, as in the former process, and to 1 pt. of it add 2 oz. of alum dissolved in 1/2 pt. of water. Put this mixture gradually to the cochineal and pearlash as long as any ebullition arises, and proceed as above.

Cochineal is still used in a variety of products – including some of the foods that we eat.  Although it is disgusting to think about eating bug dye, I am even more terrified of other food additives.

Cochineals and a resulting pigment variation

Cochineal Lake

Cochineal infestation


Cochineal – not to scale!

Note the cochineal extract on the bottom line.  This ingredient is especially prominent in drinks to make the color beautiful.


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