Laccifer lacca is a small insect about the size and color of an apple seed, which swarms on certain trees in India and Thailand. During the larval stage of its life-cycle, the lac insect creates a hard, waterproof, communal protective shell as a cocoon in which to mature and then mate.
The encrusted resin that forms this shell is scraped off the branches where the insects nest. This raw material, known as ‘sticklac’, as well as being the basis for shellac, is also used for the production of ‘lac dye’, a red pigment from the crushed bodies of the insects, much like cochineal or carmine. If lac dye is the primary product being made, the lac resin is harvested before the males have emerged from their cocoons, and the sticklac is dried in the sun to kill the beetles.
As well as being a traditional cosmetic in India, lac dye is primarily used to dye leather, silk and wool. However, it is also used as a coloring in some foods and soft drinks. According to one manufacturer’s website, “Lac dye can be used in juice drinks, carbonated drinks, wine, candy, jam and sauce.”
Some sources say that approximately 300,000 lac insects are killed to produce 1kg of lac, and that annual production is estimated at 20,000 tons globally. The main importers of lac products are Egypt, Germany, Indonesia, Italy and the United States.