The insect lives in tropical and subtropical South America, Mexico and Arizona. Its larvae eat cacti in the genus Opuntia, feeding on plant moisture and nutrients. These insects are found on the pads of prickly pear cacti, then are brushed off and dried.
The insect produces carminic acid, which deters predation by other insects. Carminic acid is extracted from the body and eggs, then mixed with aluminium or calcium salts to make carmine dye, also known as cochineal. Today, carmine is primarily used as a colorant in food and in lipstick.