FINDING COCHINEAL IN MALIBU
(Or…What’s a bug got to do with it?)
HOW I GOT MORE THAN JUST A BIRTHDAY TRIP
I feel like I sort of won a lottery, except I didn’t have to choose any numbers.
Stick with me for a bit‑‑humor me, as they say‑‑while I wander around in my thoughts before finally explaining how a fun mini‑vacation became elevated to the status of an exciting educational field trip while earning me a few points for some sort of nature badge, I’m sure.
First, let me cut to the chase: I turned 60 in June.
To celebrate, I decided to head southwest from Utah to Southern California to spend a few days with my second daughter, Melanie, who works for the National Park Service and lives in a lovely venue in the hills just a few miles from the beaches of Malibu. She made it an easy decision for me to spend a big birthday with her‑‑she pretty much planned the lion’s share of our outings, and I’m all about brainless vacations that other people have brainstormed over. (It’s only fair: I bless you with my presence, and you show me around.)
L.A. HAS ESTABLISHMENTS WHERE YOU CAN ALMOST EAT OFF THE FLOOR
One thing I like about the Greater Los Angeles area is the wide availability and diversity of…stuff, like food. Melanie took me to some nice little vegan restaurants that serve amazing cuisine, and there are even nice people who frequent these places, like the little girl and her family who helped me pick up beads from my cute Ogden Music Festival necklace that broke and projectile‑bowled its parts wildly around chair legs and leather‑free shoes, resulting in a lot of bending over by a lot of nice strangers.
One takeaway I scored from this mishap: I realize now that vegan restaurants can be much cleaner than those where greasy hamburgers and French fries are available for throwing onto the floor, to be abandoned for little plastic toys as a reward for the throwing. My vegan‑floor beads won’t even need to be degreased before being rethreaded.
Anyway, back to that amazing food…I’ll never forget how delicious it all was, even though I can’t remember exactly WHAT it all was.
MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE RANCH…
ONE ADVENTURE AFTER ANOTHER
Melanie found a small local comedy club to take me to on the night of my birthday. I believe it was the only thing we did that required us to be somewhere at a certain time.
We drove leisurely up to Santa Barbara and found more nifty places along the way to eat more brag‑worthy plant food. We also visited the Old Mission Santa Barbara that had some interesting architecture and lots of people buried above ground, below ground, and inside of buildings.
But coolest of all…I found Friar Thumper at the monastery! How perfect, since Melanie’s nickname when she was a baby was Thumper (and sometimes still is). Naturally, I had to take this picture.
I can’t neglect to mention all the art you can see in L.A.‑‑like quilts and paintings of noses and people getting their hands chomped off at LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) .
A FUN SURPRISE VISIT AND AN INSTANT FIELD TRIP
“Bonnie’s outside counting birds,” Melanie announced as I was packing up on Tuesday morning to drive back home to Utah. Bonnie was Melanie’s boss who had just recently retired from the Park Service and now has what I believe must be her dream job of owning a business that lets her contract her services to do what she really loves to do ‑‑ exploring nature and surveying plants, birds and their nests, and other living things. It’s important work. We can’t have trailblazers or maintenance people messing up the wildlife habitats, and Bonnie will find and protect them all.
This lady knows everything, and I mean EVERYTHING about birds and plants. She won a contest a while back with an article she wrote about birds for some publication and got a paid trip to Costa Rica out of the deal, along with some cool bird binoculars and other goodies.
After she wrapped up her survey assignment, Bonnie came inside for a few minutes to make some phone calls while I marveled at her detailed, expertly written field notes. When it was time for me to leave, I asked her to take a picture of Melanie and me up next to the cactus. And then…THIS happened!
THE BUG WE MAY ALL HAVE EATEN OR WORN
Thanks to Bonnie, I learned what all the “white stuff” on Melanie’s prickly pear cacti was: not a fungus or a disease, but a protective waxy substance under which reside soft, scaly little insects known as Dactylopius Coccus, or cochineal scale. Their bodies contain a purplish‑red chemical called carminic acid which gushes out when the bugs are squished. This pigment has been used for centuries for textile dyes and, more recently, extracted for a food coloring known under several names, usually Natural Red 4, carmine, or cochineal extract.
(Note: This dye is regarded as safe except in extremely rare instances of allergies. But come on, more people are allergic to peanuts. Still, some people got all up in Starbuck’s face for using it in their drinks, and if you read the article linked below, you may lobby to try to get it back.)
Anyway, Bonnie instantly recognized Melanie’s lovely patch of prickly pear cacti as one that would have been very valuable for the dye‑collecting native people centuries ago, because it is beautifully infested with cochineals ready to give their (colorful) all.
THE BUG STOPS HERE
Dactylopius Coccus are “sessile parasites,” the word “sessile” being derived from a Latin word that means “seated.” Critters who deserve to be referred to by this adjective are ones who are able to anchor themselves somewhere once they reach adulthood (like mussels or barnacles in the ocean), where they live like little couch potatoes until the day they die. Female cochineals, less than a quarter inch long, live in mostly stationary clusters on cactus pads, sucking the juices out of the cactus with their teeny little mouth‑beaks, which makes them easy targets for collection.
I’ll make it really easy for you. If you want to find a cochineal‑‑or, more accurately, millions of them‑‑with the least amount of effort, you first must limit your search to prickly pear cactus patches, like this one next to my daughter’s driveway.
Then you look for white spots that strike me as looking like “cactus barnacles” but are actually cochineal bugs covered with a protective white, waxy secretion. Gwen Pearson, who wrote a wonderful article on cochineal titled “You Know What Makes Great Food Coloring? Bugs,” published September 2015 in wired.com, says they kind of look like plant pimples. (Ew, no. Can we stick with the barnacle analogy?)
I have read a number of articles while researching these critters, and I love hers the most. I highly recommend you take a minute and read it right NOW. I’m serious! Grab a handful of kale chips with a tall glass of veggie juice or lemon water, and I’ll meet you back here in a few minutes after you chill out and read this fun article found here: http://wired.com/2015/09/cochineal-bug-feature/
See‑‑wasn’t that a fun way to learn more about Dactylopius coccus? Do you feel good about eating “natural” insect food dye now? I knew you would!
Back to your cochineal hunt. Once you have found a colony of them, take a deep breath, square your shoulders, and step forward with a butter knife, a stick, or even your finger‑‑if you were lucky enough to have been raised to be fearless and unfazed by bug guts, as Bonnie obviously was. (Hey, they ARE sessile insects, remember? It’s not like they’re going to chase you down the road or anything.)
Thanks to a Wikipedia article found here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cochineal, I found this nifty photo of a clump of girls on a cactus leaf, so this is what you’ll be squishing.
Now, reveal that crimson! Go ahead, smash a few bugs and live to tell about it. Admittedly, I didn’t have to smash any because I had Bonnie to do it for me, so I realize I would be hypocritical if I called you wimpy for not doing it. But before my next trip to Malibu, I’m going to learn how to make dye from these things and even take some cloth along to turn into a lovely color for some sort of craft, while saving some big prickly pears from being sucked dry.
Won’t that be fun?