Can You Dye a Bee? And Other Unexpected Uses for Dyes

We’re all aware of the typical colorant uses we see every day. You recognize colors used in the fabrics of your clothes, the leather in your shoes, the ink in your pens…

But what about color uses we’re not aware of? Products with dyes or pigments may not always be obvious to us in our daily lives. It may be you have never realized they were there!

There are many unusual or inconspicuous uses for dyes and pigments. Here are a few of the ones I’ve found most notable and unforeseen.


Shirts that Glow Under Black Lights

Have you ever wonder why white shirts glow in dark under a black light?

If you were a part of the dance mania of the 70s and 80s, I’m sure you experienced this phenomenon. This unusual effect is due to a fluorescent brightener in the bleach or detergent used to wash the shirt. Fluorescent brighteners, or optical whiteners, are a type of dye that contain phosphors. Phosphors react with the UV light emitted from a black light, reflecting as the purplish glow we see.

Optical Brighteners for Detecting Leaks

Another unusual use of optical or fluorescent brighteners is for leak detection. If a factory suspects they have a leak in their tank farm system, optical brighteners can help test the line. By adding an optical brightener into the tanks, an operator can then check the ground for spills. If a leak exists, the leakage will show up under a black or ultraviolet light.

Besides shirts and leak detection, you may have seen phosphor-based optical brighteners on money or event tickets. The brighteners act as a security barrier to protect against fraud.

Tracking Populations and Migrations

One of the most unusual calls I received about dye use was from a professor at the University of Idaho. Bees had been decimating their potato crops. They wanted to be able to track the bees and study their behavior.

After working with the professor, I thought of using an acid dye in solution to inject into the bee and color it.

How would that work?

Bees’ bodies contain formic acid; which is what causes the burning or itching feeling you get when a bee stings you. We predicted we may be able to dye the formic acid in the bee with an acid dye.

This worked, and we dyed the bees so they could track and study them. The solution used an acid yellow we carry in our FD&C grade products at FSW.

Coding Octane Ratings in Petroleum

Another place you may not realize has color are the dyes put in gasoline. These dyes help to differentiate among Octane ratings. Imagine if large tanks of 87-rated Octane mixed up with 93-rated Octane? What a mess! Adding a small amount of dye to each Octane grade helps differentiate them. This protects the inventory and ensures the safe use of each grade.

The same technique applies to different types of oil products. This industry uses color as a marker so the right product has the right oil. It’s also used to track oil paths or leaks.

Another product used in the automobile industry also uses color: antifreeze. The dye in antifreeze is OEM Green. The “OEM” stands for “Original Equipment Manufacturer.” Almost all auto manufacturers use this color of antifreeze in their new cars.

Marking the Identity of a Brand

Colorants used for branding purposes cover a more general than specific use. All types of companies and products strategically use color to enhance their branding.  To encourage brand recognition, companies want a specific color associated with their name and brand. This is an easy differentiation of their product from a competitor’s product.

For instance, one lumber manufacturer may want a green tint to their wood products. A competing manufacturer may have the same product but it’s tinted with a yellow hue. In today’s highly competitive markets, color as a selling tool can be very important.

Consider your car’s window washer fluid. Most of us have seen the blue version, but another brand out there uses orange. More than likely, they’re similar in composition and performance but supplied by different vendors. Once you’re aware of this marketing tactic, you’ll notice products and brands using color more for branding than for a signal of their products’ usefulness.

I could go on and on about dyes found in areas you may never notice. Our world is full of color. Products all around you have color in them, on them, or used with them.

Peek around the room you’re in now, where is there color that you haven’t noticed before?

dyes in soap

By |January 10th, 2017|Blog|0 Comments

About the Author:

James P. Bernard is Vice President of Colorants at First Source Worldwide. His skill at problem solving has led him through 48 years in the dye industry across virtually all areas of dye use. Once, he advised a university how to dye a bee population destroying crops. Now that’s strategic color management.