When i was a child, during rainy season we were amazed by the appearance of clusters of crimson–coloured ‘Saadhaba Bohus’ walking leisurely on wet grass-patches. There were two types of them, one tiny and the other, relatively larger. We were fascinated by the splendor of their velvet-like colourfull coats. The bigger ones were more attractive. Sometimes, some of my friends used to collect these insects and to put them in transparent glass bottles. They made a splendid sight but it was a cruel deed. Even now, when i happen to visit my village during the rainy season, i always look for these wonders of nature. They are called‘Saadhaba Bohus’ because of their bright crimson colour. In ancient times, women in Saadhaba (seafaring traders) families of Odisha used to wear costly bright red coloured sarees indicating their wealthy status. The ‘saadhaba bohus’ (literally meaning daughters-in-law of ‘saadhabas’) look like these ladies in the splendor of their bright red drapes.
Here they are:
Later, i found out that these insects are called cochineals, the crimson-dye-producing insects of the Dactylopiae family. These scarlet-colored insects are used in dyes for food and drinks.
These little insects are so red under all that fluff because of the presence of Carminic acid (their red dye) which repels ants. Their pigment evolved as a chemical weapon against predation. Cochneal insects are soft-bodied flat, oval shaped scale insects. The females are wingless and are about 5 mm long. They cluster on cactus pads. They penetrate the cactus with their beak-like mouthparts and feed its juice. After mating, the fertilized female increases in size and gives birth to tiny ‘nymps’. Adult males have wings and are much smaller.
Female (left) and male (right) cochineals
Male nymphs feed on the cactus till they reach sexual maturity. At this time, they can no longer feed at all and live only long enough to fertisise the eggs. Also, they are typically outnumbered by females. They are therefore seldom observed.
A Cluster of Female Cochineals
However, are these Saadhaba Bohus? Why is the colour different?
Making red dye from carcasses of cochineals