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Dye Another Day – Lanzarote´s Cochineal Industry

As a result of Lanzarote´s isolation from mainland Europe and the extremely low levels of rainfall that the island experiences local farmers have had to be extremely ingenious over the years in order to earn themselves a crust.  And over the centuries products such as wine, salt and even lichen have all had their day as important export products.  However none of these boast quite such an intriguing production process as Lanzarote´s cochineal industry – which is basically based on crushing female beetles to produce a carmine red dye.


Cochineal beetles, Tunera Cactus

Red Dye From the Cochineal Beetle


The Prickly Pear Cactus

Carminic acid is obtained from the female of the dactylpius coccus cacti which are planted by hand onto a type of cactus called a tunera or chumbera (and also known as prickly pear), which was originally native to Peru.

Unlike the male of the species the female beetle has no wings and feeds on the cactus via it´s sting, before covering itself in a white waxy substance.  This is a very common sight in the North of Lanzarote, so take a look at the cacti here to see if you can detect the small white lumps that are the tell tale sign of cochineal cultivation.  Once mature, farmers then sweep these females off the plants using spatula or spoon shaped tools and lay them out to dry, before finally grinding them into a powder.

The prickly pear cactus plays an important role in island agriculture as it helps to fertilise the soil and along with terraces and stone walls it is a common sight in the North of the island. Gutaiza and Mala used to be the epicentre of cochineal production on Lanzarote and there are still some 200 hectares under cultivation here today.

Manrique´s Cactus Garden

Symbolically César Manrique also decided to site the Cactus Garden here too – which is one of the most popular tourist attractions on Lanzarote  and widely regarded as one of the finest collections of cacti in the world.  A local farmer often gives demonstrations on how to harvest the cochineal beetle in the car park – so wander over and take a look if you are interested.

Growth of the Cochineal Industry

Cochineal cultivation was originated some 2000 years ago by the Mayans and Incas and was imported to Spanish shores during the 16th century. During the 17th and 18th centuries cochineal became big business on Lanzarote and it was exported to mainland Europe where it had a variety of uses, from dyeing the red coats of English soldiers through to blushing the cheeks of nobleman´s wives.  By the 1840´s cochineal was in fact accounting for around 20% of Lanzarote´s gross domestic product.

However, like all industries of this type cochineal production started to fade away in the latter half of the 19th century as synthetic dyes came onto the market.  And since then the price has fallen to such an extent that it is no longer viable for local farmers to produce it in industrial quantities – despite the fact it is of much higher quality than say Peruvian cochineal.

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