I got Bill Bryson’s new book “At Home” from my library, and have been happily reading about the history of houses.
When I got to the chapter “The Drawing Room”, I discovered a rather depressing mistake:
“Shellac is a hard resinous secretion from the Indian lac beetle. Lac beetles emerge in swarms in parts of India at certain times of the year, and their secretions make varnish that is odorless, nontoxic, brilliantly shiny, and highly resistant to scratches and fading.”
Shellac is made from Laccifer lacca, the lac scale. Scale insects look quite different from typical insects. Tiny, with no visible legs or antennae, they kind of look like plant pimples. Like many of their relatives (mealybugs, for example), Lac scales secrete a waxy covering for both protection and waterproofing. That’s what’s harvested to make shellac; it is not a happy process for the insects.
I tried to figure out how Bryson got the wrong end of this taxonomic stick, but wasn’t able to sort it out.
The reference listed in Bryson’s book does correctly identify the insect as a scale; although it also talks about larvae. A lot of internet stories use the name Coccus lacca, or suggest that it’s an insect that has a pupa and full metabolism.
Scale insects don’t undergo complete metamorphosis, 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.
Clearly, there is a need for a short epistle on Shellac, it’s insecty creators, and its many uses! (including your food!)
Look for it soon!
[image from Project Gutenberg]