Shellac: also not a beetle

I got Bill Bryson’s new book “At Home” from my library, and have been happily reading about the history of houses.
Except.

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.”

Those of you who have been privy to my previous ranting about cochineal will know the refrain to this song:
IT’S NOT A BEETLE.

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]

6 thoughts on “Shellac: also not a beetle

  1. Alas, many entomologists would now accept ‘larva’ as correct for the immature stages of any insect (or at least those stages not a pupa). As I understand the reasoning (which I think I first encountered in the first edition of Gullan & Cranston’s The Insects), the process is the same and dwelling on the exterior morphology is distracting and heuristically unsound. Some of the Evo-Devo papers make a fairly convincing point that we may need to reorganise our thinking about insect development. I think I miss naiad more than nymph, but I’ve stopped correcting people and just try to convince them that ‘larvae’ is not singular.

  2. Yeah, that one I can let slide.
    While I am happy that the new molecular data is clearing up some of the confusing phylogeny, it’s also frustrating that so much that I learned is now considered inaccurate. The more things change, the more they Don’t stay the same! Sigh.

  3. Well, this makes perfect sense, since they used to make records out of shellac (before the introduction of vinyl in the late 1940s), and the records contained music, and music is constructed from scales. (Insert rim-shot here.)

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