cochineal (kŏchĭnēlˈ, kŏchˈĭnēl) [key], natural dye obtained from an extract of the bodies of the females of the cochineal bug ( Dactylopius confusus ) found on certain species of cactus, especially Nopalea coccinellifera, native to Mexico and Central America. The insects' bodies contain the pigment called carminic acid, which is obtained by subjecting a mass of the crushed insects to steam or dry heat; such large numbers of the insects are needed to produce a small amount of dye that the cost is high. Once commonly used as a scarlet-red mordant dye for wool and as a food color, cochineal has been largely replaced by synthetic products. It is used chiefly now as a biological stain.
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