Cochineal Scale

Dactylopius spp.


Dactylopius Cochineal scales photo © by Mike Plagens

This small colony of Cochineal Scale was found on Buckhorn Cholla (Cylindropuntia acanthocarpa) - not a usual host. Notice how the red dye is wicking into the translucent spines. There are several, visually identical species.

Coccidae -- Soft Scale Insect Family

One of the more famous and useful insects of the Sonoran Desert. This bug is still widely cultivated for its red-colored dye, carminic acid. Today it is used as a natural dye for cloth and also for foods. The white coating on the bugs is a wax excreted by the bugs to protect themselves from sun and desiccation.

For xeriscape gardeners who add prickly pear cactus to their garden, more often than not, this insect becomes a persistent pest. It is confusing for the gardener to see healthy and beautiful Opuntia in the untamed desert and their pampered ones struggling under a load of white-waxy scales. The reason these bugs' population explodes is that the garden is an artificial habitat ... there are important elements missing. In this case the missing elements are the natural predators of cochineal scales. These natural predators are an array of beetles, flies and wasps that specialize on cochineal scales. Without them the scales can reproduce unimpeded.

Gardeners can try hosing off the bugs with plain water. Adding a small amount of natural detergent can also help.

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Copyright Michael J. Plagens, page created 21 July 2008,
updated 13 March 2019.