En EspaŅol

Q. Who is Mr. Smarty Plants?

A: There are those who suspect Wildflower Center volunteers are the culpable and capable culprits. Yet, others think staff members play some, albeit small, role. You can torture us with your plant questions, but we will never reveal the Green Guru's secret identity.

Help us grow by giving to the Plant Database Fund or by becoming a member

Did you know you can access the Native Plant Information Network with your web-enabled smartphone?

Share

Ask Mr. Smarty Plants

Ask Mr. Smarty Plants is a free service provided by the staff and volunteers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Search Smarty Plants
    
 
See a list of all Smarty Plants questions
Can't find the answer in our existing FAQs, submit a question to Mr. Smarty Plants.
Need help with plant identification, visit the plant identification page.
 
rate this answer
Not Yet Rated

Tuesday - November 18, 2008

From: Los Angeles , CA
Region: California
Topic: Cacti and Succulents
Title: Cochineal bugs on cactus
Answered by: Nan Hampton

QUESTION:

Mr. Smarty plants. I have purple prickly pear cactus that are developing small white flake like spots, mostly where the thorns would be. Why is this happening and how can I cure it?

ANSWER:

Your cactus sounds as if it is infested with cochineal bugs (Dactylopius sp.).  They are small scale insects that feed on the cactus.  They produce fluffy white wax that hides their bodies as they feed on the cactus and protects them from the elements (drying out, in particular) and from predation.  The fluffy wax also serves as a sail or balloon to float on the wind and take the bugs to a new patch of cactus.  The bugs produce carminic acid that also helps protect them from predation, especially from ants. This carminic acid in the bugs has been used by indigenous peoples of southwestern North America, Central America and sub-tropical South America to make a brilliant red dye for centuries, perhaps millennia, to produce beautifully colored textiles. Originally, the cochineal bugs were limited to the New World.  When the European explorers visited and saw the beautiful red cloth of the natives, they took the cochineal bugs back with them and now they occur all over the world.  When a synthetic red dye was produced the demand for cochineal bugs decreased, although they have also been used to help control cactus popuations.  Recently, however, after it was determined that the synthetic red dyes can have adverse health side effects, there has been a renewed  interest in growing cochineal bugs for red dye.  The dye made from the bugs is currently used in cosmetics and as food coloring.  Because of this, controlling cochineal bugs hasn't really been a priority and, therefore, there isn't a lot of information that I have been able to find for controlling them.  However, click here to read what one grower recommends.  If your infestation is small, I suggest scraping them off (carefully, to avoid the sharp cactus spines) and disposing of them.  You might also be able to wash them off with a water under pressure.  Test a small area first to be sure that you don't injure your cactus and gather up and dispose of any of the insects that you wash off the cactus.

Here are a few links to more information about the cochineal bugs:

Gateway to Sedona with a bit the history of the using the bugs for dye.

Wayne's World with excellent photos of the bugs.

You can read instructions for making and using a natural dye from the cochineal in Using the Cochineal Bug and Dying Things Red!!

 

More Cacti and Succulents Questions

Identification of Wood from Frying Pan Ranch Near Amarillo, TX (possibly Cholla)
April 26, 2013 - I'm doing research for a museum exhibition and have been told the "holey" piece of wood from The Frying Pan Ranch near Amarillo Texas is "chollya" but I can find no information. Can you help?
view the full question and answer

Taking down a Century Plant blooming stalk from Fair Oaks Branch TX
August 09, 2013 - Our century cactus looks like it's in the final stages of blooming and I read on your site that the original plant dies. Can we go ahead and cut down the tall blooms?
view the full question and answer

Black fungus on cholla cactus from Austin
March 25, 2012 - How to get rid of black fungus on cholla cactus? Cut it off? And treat with what?
view the full question and answer

Leaves turning black on Agave americana
June 06, 2008 - Dear Mr. Smarty Plants- We have a ~5-year-old agave americana that began to have leaves turn yellow (to black in some areas) just this past spring (2008). A neighbor's tree had started to overhang t...
view the full question and answer

What to do with bloom stalk on yucca
June 08, 2008 - Six years ago, I dug up two small narrow-leaf yuccas from a deer lease outside of Junction, Texas. I planted them in a raised bed in my yard and the smaller of the two survived and grew. To my surpris...
view the full question and answer

Smarty Plants's Facebook profile Support the Wildflower Center by Donating Online or Becoming a Member today.

Mr. Smarty Plants wants you to be his Facebook friend. Click the Facebook icon to add yourself to Mr. Smarty Plants list of friends.
E-NEWSLETTER | BECOME A MEMBER | DONATE NOW | MEDIA | SITEMAP
© 2014 Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center