They. Are. NOT. Beetles.

I don’t know why this irritates me so much, but it really does. I have been fighting with Snopes about this for years. (And they were really snotty and rude about my pointing out their taxonomic error, too! Most disappointing!)

What set me off this time is the news that Aveda is cutting out carmine and cochineal dyes from their lipsticks:

“What’s on your lips? Dead beetle eggs? No, actually, dead beetle eggs. Allow us to explain, at least for the sake of your daily dose of TMI: Many lipsticks are stocked with carmine pigments, a red color taken from the dried and crushed shells, wings, and eggs of the female cochineal beetle. “

Carmine is made from the cochineal scale insect–not even remotely a beetle.
Not. A. Beetle. GAH!

I love the description of scale insects from this Vermont Extension publication:

“Scale insects are a peculiar group and look quite different from the typical insects we encounter day to day. Small, immobile, with no visible legs or antennae, they resemble individual fish scales pressed tightly against the plant on which they are feeding.”

Cochineal insects are a natural predator of prickly pear, and cover themselves in a white, fluffy wax. The genus is Dactylopius, for those who like those sorts of details.

Carmine is made from the collected crushed bodies of these female scale insects. (The females don’t have wings, BTW–another point the journalist got wrong.) They are smashed to release the pink pigment–it is not a happy process for the scale insect.

Some day when I’m not completely swamped, I’ll have to write more about how this animal provided a great way for many indigenous people to make some cash by harvesting cochineal. Alas, now that folks (including PETA) are in an uproar about bugs in lipstick, these tiny little cash cows are out of work.

Don’t look too closely at the label on your pink juice drink, either :D

EDITED 2/29 to add: I completely forgot to credit the photo! It’s from BugGuide.

21 thoughts on “They. Are. NOT. Beetles.

  1. dumb people.. i’m far happier with carmine than the cheap artificial colours that go into virtually every confectionery and savoury snack. They’ll probably go up against the boiling of silkworm cases next…

  2. Campari just wouldn’t be the same without cochineal. I remember grossing a bunch of people out when I explained that item on the ingredients list of Snapple strawberry-kiwi.

  3. I am much more concerned with the behavior of Snopes. If they can’t be trusted to change an article to match the facts presented to them by an expert – and do so in a mature manner – then how can I depend on them for anything else? I think this demands a Snopes write-in campaign. It reminds me of the nutcase Lou Dobb’s response when some of his errors are pointed out to him: “If we said it, it is the truth.”……. Which reminds me, in turn, of Nixon….

  4. This is what I sent Snopes:

    WRT to the following article:
    http://www.snopes.com/food/ingredient/bugjuice.asp

    It has been reported that you were corrected on this article by an expert in the field who advised you that Dactylopius Coccus is NOT a beetle but a scale insect. You refused to change your page and responded to that person in a rude and arrogant manner.

    Snopes is supposed to be in the business of verifying Urban legends and other nonsense and one would not believe such behavior could occur at your site by one (or more) of your editors. It is disappointing to know that you don’t really adhere to your own standards.

    Yours,

    I know you are fully capable of defending yourself. I did it for my own personal reasons. I depend on Snopes to refute some of the BS that comes into my life almost every day. It is scary to know that, at heart, they are not dependable at all.

  5. awwww. Thanks!
    It was a disappointing experience, and I didn’t just communicate with them as bug girl. I used my real name.
    (perhaps that was the problem? :D )

  6. I’m VERY disappointed in Snopes. I’ll write them, too.

    As for this issue, is there any real reason to get upset? Is there any danger at all here, or is it just our society’s “ewww!” factor?

    If nothing else, you could probably calm the newagers by saying it’s all-natural and organic!

  7. Here’s the comment I sent to Snopes:

    Hello. I’ve been a fan of your website for many years, and used it as a reference many, many times. I’ve applauded the work you do correcting misinformation. I’ve really come to rely on you.

    Which is why it disturbed me greatly when my friend, [Bug Girl’s secret identity excised], told me that you were very rude to her when she gave you a correction of this article:

    http://www.snopes.com/food/ingredient/bugjuice.asp

    The insects in question are not beetles. This is not a big change that would require a rewrite, but should be done for the sake of accuracy. I don’t fault you for making mistakes–we all do–but a site dedicated to fighting misinformation like yours is should be able to handle corrections in a mature fashion. Instead, you were, in her words, “snotty and rude,” and the web page remains unchanged.

    I am very disappointed. Please rectify the situation and make sure corrections are handled properly in the future. I really like your site, and I want to think this is just a one-time slip-up. Please don’t prove me wrong in that.

  8. Wow–thanks guys! Maybe they will finally correct it. It’s not good when there is an easily proven factual error on Snopes–the site is so invaluable.

    Oddly enough, I really *don’t* know why this particular error bothers me so much-I try not to be the type of pedant that makes lay people say “insect” instead of “bug”, since only one group are true bugs.

    It just yanks my chain for some inexplicable reason.

  9. I only recently discovered (in the last ten years) that bug is a technical term. I thought it was a popular term. But there is no good reason for confusing beetles with scales……lol

  10. I just tried to send an email about this matter to Snopes, only to have my comment bounce back to me. Will try again. Meanwhile here’s the comment:

    Having been a passionate promoter of Snopes for years, I feel betrayed to learn that you have refused to correct an inaccurate entry despite having been informed of your error by a professional entomologist. As has evidently been explained to you several times now, the insects from which cochineal and carmine are made are not beetles.

    See https://membracid.wordpress.com/2008/02/28/they-are-not-beetles/

    Yes, this insect is often referred to as a “beetle” in common parlance. But isn’t that precisely the sort of widespread misconception Snopes is supposed to correct?

    If you refuse to believe the entomologist who first contacted you, ask a few others. Get the facts. Isn’t that your mission?

    If a site such as yours is not scrupulous in its attention to accuracy, it has betrayed not just its readers but its entire reason for existing.
    Color me heartbroken.

    This comment refers to the following entry:
    http://www.snopes.com/food/ingredient/bugjuice.asp

  11. I’m someone who is extremely allergic to carmine. So allergic that I ate a yogurt with carmine on a business trip once and ended up in an emergency room going into shock. It’s become more common now to see it actually listed in the ingredients rather than just hidden under “natural and artifical color”. I actually found your site using google to try to find lipstick without carmine, it’s really interesting to learn more about the insects themselves.

  12. I should have known, buggirl, that you’d been into this! I wrote this a while back
    the colour red
    Admittedly, my main interest lies in the dramatic history and the colour – wars have been fought over such resources. But I really enjoy that it is an insect, and therefore freaks out chickens. I know a girl who – after I gleefully told her about cochineal – panicked and refused to eat her favourite sweets.. ah. It keeps me amused.

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