Cochineal Taxonomy Fails

Alas, Starbucks has backpedaled and decided to remove cochineal from all its food and drink products. This is a shame, since as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, cochineal is an insect-derived dye that provides an important source of cash for a lot of rural Central and South American people. There is also evidence the culture and sale of cochineal leads to more independence and higher female literacy in Mexico.

The news coverage of this story is also a shame, because once again the myth that the cochineal insect is a beetle is on the rounds.

Not. A. Beetle.

Not even closely related to a beetle.  In fact, the closest common ancestor shared by a scale insect and a beetle would be around 372 Million Years Ago.

Obviously, as an entomologist, I can be expected to get upset about things like taxonomic mistakes. But for the average news reader, does it really matter that cochineal isn’t accurately identified?  I think it does, and that’s because the error is one that we would not tolerate, or would mock, if it happened with a vertebrate animal.

Let’s say Wikipedia replaced Einstein’s photo with that of a chimpanzee.   We would immediately recognize this mistake, since chimps are not the same as humans. We last shared a common ancestor 6.4 million years ago.

Alex Wild uses this comparison as the baseline for his calculation of the excellent Taxonomy Fail Index:

A = the actual taxon of the pictured organism
B = the taxon as misidentified
T = the number of million years since A and B shared a common ancestor
H = the number of million years since humans and our closest relatives, the chimps, shared a common ancestor.

Taxonomy Fail Index (TFI) = T/H

In other words, the Taxonomy Fail Index scales the amount of error in absolute time against the error of misidentifying a human with a chimp.

Einstein and a cat

So, in my example of Einstein and a chimp, the Taxonomy Fail Index = 1.

Let’s look at another example: say Einstein’s photo is confused with one of a cat. That error has a Taxonomy Fail Index of 15; over 94 million years separate the common ancestors of humans and kitties.

Using this scale, how big is the error of mistaking a cochineal scale insect for a beetle? That’s a Taxonomy Fail Index of 58.

A mistake in classification that large would mean that a photo of a human would have to be replaced with a….FROG.

That is a rather large mistake.

LOL frog

Confusing a highly social placental mammal with a large brain for an amphibian.  An egg laying animal that breeds in water, grows through a tadpole stage, and breathes through its skin.

THAT is why I get really aggravated with the taxonomic mistake of calling a scale insect a beetle.  It is a huge error.   It’s not just that I’m being an anal-retentive entomologist that insists that my obscure disciplinary taxonomic language be recognized by all.  (Ok, maybe a little of that. But not only that.)

This sort of taxonomic carelessness is why some really amazing mistakes are made, and leads to news organizations pretty much tossing random photos of any old beetle on their stories.

It also leads to misinformation about cochineal itself–this story, for example, mentions “smashed up wings and finely ground tiny legs.”  There won’t be any wings or legs in the dye, primarily because the insects are crushed and the pigment extracted. No parts are left behind.  The other main reason is that the dye-producing female insects don’t have wings.  They hardly have any legs, either.

Scale insects don’t undergo complete metamorphosis as a beetle would, so they don’t have larvae and pupae.  In fact, scales have their own special freaky system of growth and reproduction in which the females loose their legs and turn into a sort of tiny insect Jabba the Hutt, and even tinier males fertilize them and die.

News stories like the one I quoted above referring to wings and legs are just feeding the OMGINSECTSINMAIFOODZ freakout over cochineal.  It’s not accurate, and it’s sloppy journalism.

Careless sourcing of images on news stories results in lots of Taxonomy Fails; in some cases, it can be a public health issue.  This news article about bed bugs actually had a photo of a flea right above the caption “many people cannot identify bed bugs.”  Gosh, you think the fact that incorrect photos are all over the web might have something to do with that?

And now I’m going to stomp off in an entomological huff. Exit stage right.

More information about cochineal and edible insects: