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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

From Scarlet Banksias to Peruvian Bugs

It's been a busy day, and I was going to just post a picture and promise to be back tomorrow, but somehow I've found myself digressing. (I can hear someone close to me murmur "oh really?!", with a suspiciously disrespectful lack of surprise.) Anyway, here's the pic to start with.
Scarlet Banksia, Banksia coccinea, south of Stirling Ranges National Park, Western Australia.
After orchids, the banksias form one of my very favourite plant groups, and this one is especially glorious. The species name comes from the Latin for scarlet - and that's where I got distracted.

It reminded me of the dye cochineal, the name also having the same derivation, and then I remembered seeing the Cochineal Insects Dactylopius coccus, in Peru. The insect is a bug (ie a member of the Order Hemiptera), rather than a beetle as is sometimes asserted. It is a sap-sucking scale insect, always associated with Opuntia spp, the Prickly Pear cactuses. The ones I saw were high up in the Sacred Valley (of the Incas) in the southern Peruvian Andes near Cusco. 

The insects cluster on the cactus pads, and the nymphs cover themselves with a waxy
coating for protection.

So, wherefore the cochineal? The insects are full of carminic acid, which is apparently an effective predator deterrent. And what colour is carminic acid? Well durr, yes it's scarlet...

And there is an Australian connection here. The First Fleet (ie the fleet which carried the first British colonists - mostly convicts and soldiers - to Australia) brought from Brazil Opuntia infested with Cochineal Insects, to make dye for the soldiers' scarlet uniforms! This was not, incidentally, the source of the scourge of Prickly Pear which in the early 20th century smothered tens of thousands of square kilometres of land in southern Queensland and northern New South Wales, so that's a story for another day.

As I'd originally intended to say a few paragraphs earlier - back tomorrow!


4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hey, cool content, but WordPress breaks it up on my monitor. Maybe it's the plugin you have on the site. Have you considered a different CMS?

Ian Fraser said...

Hi and thanks for the feedback (for some reason your comment was consigned to Spam and I've only just seen it). No-one else has mentioned this problem, and I'm afraid I'm not familiar with WordPress. Perhaps WordPress and Blogger can't talk, but I agree that would be ridiculous. I'm afraid I'm reluctant to make any major changes in the absence of widespread problems - I'm sorry about that.

Danielle said...

Hi Ian, do you have a verifiable source regarding your info that the First Fleet brought those plants + bugs to Australia for the dye? I'm doing research on this for a symposium at a German university. Would be much appreciated, if you could tell me where you got this info. Thanks, DAnielle

Ian Fraser said...

Hi Danielle. I guess the only verifiable source would be the original list of supplies for the First Fleet, and I'm sure you could get that with a little work (and the help of either the NLA or the NSW Library). However there are many authoritative references, eg Telford, I.R.H. (1984). Opuntia in George, A.S. (Ed), Flora of Australia Vol 4. Australian Government Printing Service, Canberra. Hope this is of some use - and good luck with the symposium!