An Ode to the Humble Lac Bug

This bug has transformed the world.

The vast majority of us couldn’t identify a lac bug if our life depended on it. And yet, not a day goes by in which you haven’t benefited from this bug’s mere existence. Even though odds are high that you’ve never crossed paths with even one of these critters, you probably swallow or touch lac bug secretions thousands of times each year.

Admit it. You had no idea, did you? I certainly didn’t, until an offhand comment sent me through a twisty maze of research, and at the end of this maze sat the humble lac bug. Specifically, the female lac bug, minding her own business, carrying on with her brief and buggy little life.

So we embark upon this winding avenue of inquiry by gazing at a bug no bigger than a watermelon seed. I know this is probably not your favorite thing to look at, but you’ll thank me someday when you emerge, triumphant, from your local bar, just having won something mildly satisfying on trivia night. You’re welcome. Please consider using the proceeds to purchase my book, Notes on Gratitude. ( Shameless self-promotion.)

The impetus for this adventure was my offhand comment that I intended to weatherproof a piece of wood by coating it in shellac. Actually, as most people do these days, I was really going to use polyurethane, but for some reason, my brain came up with the much more ancient, traditional, and natural product that I doubt I’ve ever had the opportunity to use myself. (Besides, shellac works much better as an indoor resin, so it wouldn’t have been appropriate for my purposes.)

From there, Dear Husband told me that shellac came from the shell of the lac bug. This was news to me. (And proved to be false. Sorry, hon.)

Lac bugs secrete a substance that we turn into shellac, the only known commercial resin of animal origin. It’s a renewable resource. It’s considered a natural form of plastic. We have been using it for at least 3,000 years.

Europe first learned of lac and its many uses thanks to the travels of Marco Polo in the late 13th century. They must have been gob smacked. All that, from a bug?

You’ve probably heard of shellac being used on fine furniture and stringed instruments as a wood finish/primer/stain/high-gloss varnish. In fact, in the 16th-century a craftsman who could apply shellac well was called a varnisher, and this was considered a trade all its own.

But shellac is even more versatile than that. For about 40 years, it was mainly used to make records. Unfortunately, these records were very fragile. Therefore, in the 1950’s they started making records from vinyl. (There’s a scene from 1946 in It’s A Wonderful Life in which Donna Reed smashes a record. That was shellac, not vinyl as the YouTube link erroneously claims. You can’t smash vinyl like that.)

Shellac has also been used as a dye, particularly on cotton and silks, and as an artist’s pigment as well as a protective coating on paintings. Its color ranges from yellow to orange to a rich reddish ochre.

Before modern advances in plastics, shellac was molded into picture frames, boxes, jewelry, and dentures. Shellac mixed with a specific type of synthetic resin produces Bakelite, and at the risk of dating myself, that substance made things seem very colorful and modern when I was a child, but now those same things look incredibly quaint.

For many years, shellac was used by archeologists as a coating to stabilize the bones of dinosaurs, but it’s an organic substance, so modern conservators no longer use it for fear it will have a negative effect on fossils in the long term.

But probably the most surprising thing about shellac, at least for me, is that it is edible. Now, don’t get too excited. Many shellac products are most definitely not edible.

You would be ill-advised to take a can of shellac off your hardware store shelf and chug it down, for example. To make shellac usable for the maximum amount of time, things are added that would be quite dangerous for you to consume. In a nutshell: Don’t do it. Even the edible kind of lac products are toxic to humans if eaten in large quantities.

Having said that, I feel obligated to mention that to this day, shellac is used as a coating on pills and candies. If you take any type of timed release pills, you’re most likely consuming shellac. Shellac is what makes jellybeans shiny. It’s also used on candy corn, Milk Duds, Goobers and Raisinets, Junior Mints and Sugar Babies. It was used in Skittles, but they went bug-free and vegetarian in 2009.  It’s also used on citrus and apples to make them shiny and prolong their shelf life. It’s nearly impossible for most of us to avoid consuming shellac, and knowing that means I’ll never look at the world in the same way again.

Shellac is also used to make biodegradable plastic bags, shoe polish, hair spray, nail polish, floor wax, grinding stones, adhesives for fishing flies, and it’s a binder in India ink. It makes felt hats stiffer and more water resistant. There’s even an ancient Vedic book that claims that an entire palace was once made from its resin. (Oh, for a Wayback Machine!)

Veterinarians used to mix lac with lard and use the paste to fill cavities in broken horse hooves. In addition, shellac is an ingredient in blue and green fireworks. Ironically, it’s also used for mounting insects.

So, how is shellac made? I encourage you to check out this fascinating YouTube video. It’s a bit slow to start, but then it gets really interesting. It even shows people stretching shellac into transparent sheets as big as a man. Once those sheets dry, they’re broken into shards for bulk sale. You’ll also see men pulling shellac like 20 foot stretches of taffy.

(The above mentioned video kind of reminded me of those “how do they make stuff” videos that you’d see while watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Mr. Rogers fed my inner nerd. If his travel budget had been bigger, I can imagine him going to India and wandering through this shellac factory, gently asking all the questions you wish you could ask.)

Nature does most of the dirty work in the shellac production process. Basically, the life cycle of your average female lac bug is about 6 months. They feed on the sap of certain trees, mainly found in India and Thailand. They swarm to these trees by the thousands, eat the sap, lay eggs, and secrete lac, which dries as a hard substance that protects their larvae.

During this process, a single lac bug can lay 300-1,000 eggs. Unfortunately, this same lac secretion eventually encases the mature bug as well, and ultimately they die. At a certain point, the young will break through the crust and the cycle begins all over again. (And now I’m singing The Circle of Life.)

The trees are pruned twice a year, and the lac is broken off the pruned branches. It is then ground up, melted, and sifted to remove the dead bug bits and any other debris. While it does take about 100,000 lac bugs to make a pound of shellac resin, no live bugs are intentionally harmed by humans to make shellac, so PETA can calm down.

Lac bugs do have natural predators, which means approximately 40 percent of these bugs don’t get to fulfill their mission. These enemies include monkeys, squirrels, rats, lizards and birds, as well as a host of parasites.

One of the most endearing stories about lac bugs that I came across is that they are responsible for raising more than 900 households in Vietnam from poverty. Lac harvesting had been a traditional occupation for their ancestors, who used to sell the lac to the Soviet Union. But after the Soviet bloc broke up, the industry collapsed, the trees were chopped down for firewood, and the resulting fields were used to cultivate other crops that were much less financially rewarding. A Vietnamese initiative to restore the lac industry has been a huge success, and it has radically improved many human lives. Thanks, lac bugs!

Even though the use of shellac is on the wane now that we have synthetic resin compounds, it’s safe to say that the humble little lac bug has transformed the world, and continues to have a significant influence on it to this very day.

Lac bugs should really learn how to brag. We’d be lost without them. Who knew?

Additional Sources:

Author: The View from a Drawbridge

I have been a bridgetender since 2001, and gives me plenty of time to think and observe the world.

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