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Garden Allies: Homopterans

Articles: Garden Allies: Homopterans

Cochineal scale insects (Dactylopius coccus) on cactus pad. Illus: Craig Latker

Curious Creatures—Unlikely Allies

Homopterans, a conglomeration of loosely related families within the order Hemiptera (see Pacific Horticulture, July 2010), have played prominent roles in human history. The cochineal scale insect (Dactylopius coccus) was the only good source of red coloring (carmine dye) for clothes and food, until synthetic alizarin was invented in the late nineteenth century. Carmine dye was exported to Europe from South America and used to color fabric for royal clothing, religious vestments, and the infamous British "red coats." More recently, health concerns over the use of synthetic colorants have increased the use of carmine dye in foods and cosmetics. A related group of insects (Coccoidea) includes lac scales, the source of shellac, a well-known wood finish. Before the advent of vinyl, records were pressed from shellac, and the first plastic, Bakelite, was developed as a replacement for shellac products. The bible's manna from heaven is thought to be the sugary excreta (honeydew) of a homopteran.

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