An El Paso Exhibit Showcases The Many Ways This Insect Colors Your World

Crimson pigment made from the cochineal bug is in everything from clothing to makeup. It’s also found in vibrant art.

By Alexandra HartJuly 3, 2017 12:32 pm

Your face, your food, and your formalwear. These are just some of the places where you may have interacted with the cochineal bug — a small insect that produces a vibrant crimson pigment.

Native to many regions of South America, as well as Mexico and Arizona, the dried beetle was an important export for the Spanish empire. Its dye has been used globally for several centuries for coloring foods and various craft traditions, including paints, textiles and makeup.

The bug’s colorful history is on display in west Texas this summer. Patrick Shaw Cable, a senior curator at the El Paso Museum of Art, says the exhibit illustrates the expansive impact of the cochineal.

“It’s really a wonderful show that’s cross-cultural and cross-historical, through this very novel thing,” Cable says.

He says examples of food and craft traditions using dye from the beetle are on display, as well as glimpse into the cochineal bug’s modern uses, which elicits a mixed reaction from patrons.

“On the one hand, some people might not like the idea of eating dried up bugs for various reasons,” Cable says. “But other people consider it a natural dye that is less problematic than a synthetic type.”

“The Red That Colored The World” exhibit will be on display until Aug. 20 at the El Paso Museum of Art.

What you’ll hear in this segment:

– The historical significance of the cochineal bug

– How its impact is immortalized across several mediums

– Where you see the beetle’s dye used today

Written by Lila Weatherly.