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Those planning a holiday in Tenerife in the later months of the year, may be interested to know about the age old tradition that takes place in October/November, and is a fascinating sight to see. This is the ancient island harvesting of the cochineal beetles, which used to take place on an almost daily basis, but now tends to be staged as an historical re-enactment. Cochineal, most commonly known to most of us as red food colouring, comes from tiny bugs that live on prickly pears cacti. This is a plant that grows in great profusion all over Tenerife. The islands treat this as a special day out, and many will bring along guitars and ukuleles to entertain the crowds. More often than not, television cameras will record the event for the local evening news.

The harvesters wear an unusual uniform of brown paper wrapped very stoutly around their arms and legs, and broad brimmed hates to protect them from the sun. The dye is extracted from the female beetles, which is lucky, as they outnumber the males in a 200 to 1 ratio. It was Cortez who discovered the dye when he found the Aztec civilisations in 1518, where the Mayans and Incas used it for decoration. In the 16th century it was so coveted it had a value higher than gold. The belief is that a Canarian who had originated in South America must have brought the first insects to the island where it quickly grew into a very prized crop and export. The USA and Japan were principal importers.

Using a long spoon, the harvest takes place by scraping off white powder seen on the prickly pears into a metal tin. The contents of the tins are then shaken out onto an old sheet on the ground and sieved. The final part of the process is to swing the sieved powder around in an old pillowcase. All that is left behind after this fairly primitive separation process is the tiny black insects and they are then left to dry in the sun.

These days cochineal is farmed on a much larger scale, but it is still fascinating to see the origins of its cultivation, for so many years a major contributor to the Tenerife economy. The dye is still used for various purposes from lipsticks and paint to sausages. If you are staying in Tenerife and get a chance to go along and witness one of these rituals, it will certainly be a unique, colourful and interesting experience.

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