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Spanish fly

For other uses, see Spanish fly (disambiguation).

The Spanish fly is an emerald-green beetle in the family Meloidae, Lytta vesicatoria.[1] Other species of blister beetles used by apothecaries are often called Spanish fly. L. vesicatoria is sometimes incorrectly called Cantharis vesicatoria, but the genus Cantharis is in an unrelated family, Cantharidae.[2]

Cantharidin (etymology: Greek kantharis, beetle) is a powerful irritant vesicant (blister-inducing) substance obtained from many blister beetles, and sometimes given the nickname "Spanish fly". Cantharidin is claimed to have aphrodisiac properties, as a result of its irritant effects upon the body's genitourinary tract, and can result in poisoning if ingested.[3] Ingestion of blister beetles from infested hay causes similar serious toxic symptoms in animals.[4]


L. vesicatoria is 15 to 22 mm (0.59 to 0.87 in) long and 5 to 8 mm (0.20 to 0.31 in) wide. Adult beetles feed on leaves of ash, lilac, amur privet, and white willow trees; larvae are parasitic on the brood of ground-nesting bees, and lives on plants in the families Caprifoliaceae and Oleaceae. The beetle lives in scrublands and woods throughout southern Europe and eastward to Central Asia and Siberia.[5]


Main article: Cantharidin

Cantharidin, the principal irritant in Spanish fly, was first isolated and named in 1810 by Pierre Robiquet, a French chemist then living in Paris, from L. vesicatoria. Robiquet demonstrated that cantharidin was the actual principle responsible for the aggressively blistering properties of the coating of the eggs of that insect, and established that cantharidin had very definite toxic and poisonous properties comparable in degree to that of the most violent poisons known in the 19th century, such as strychnine.[6]

Cantharidin, a terpenoid, is produced by various insect species. The body of the beetle contains up to 5% cantharidin. The crushed powder is of yellowish brown to brown-olive color with iridescent reflections, of disagreeable scent and bitter flavor. The potency of the insect species has been known since antiquity and used in various ways, in particular prepared and sold in powdered form obtained from dried and ground beetles, known as cantharides (the Greek plural form of the singular cantharis).

Sexual desire[edit]

Collecting cantharides, 19th century.

As it passes through the body, cantharidin irritates the genitals resulting in increased blood flow that can mimic the engorgement that occurs with sexual excitement.[3] For this reason, various preparations of desiccated Spanish flies have been used as some of the world's oldest alleged aphrodisiacs, with a reputation dating back to the early western Mediterranean classical civilizations. The ease of toxic overdose makes this highly dangerous, so the sale of such products as Spanish fly has been made illegal in most countries. Nevertheless, there are many historical examples:

  • In Roman times, Livia, the scheming wife of Augustus Caesar slipped it into food, hoping to inspire her guests to some indiscretion with which she could later blackmail them.[7]
  • Henry IV (1050–1106) is known to have consumed Spanish fly.[8]
  • In 1572, Ambroise Paré wrote an account of a man suffering from "the most frightful satyriasis" after taking a potion composed of nettles and cantharides.[9]
  • In the 1670s, Spanish fly was mixed with dried mole's and bat's blood for a love charm made by the magician La Voisin.[10]
  • It was slipped into the food of Louis XIV to secure the king's lust for Madame de Montespan.[11]
  • In the 18th century, cantharides became fashionable, known as pastilles Richelieu in France.[12]
  • It is claimed the Marquis de Sade gave aniseed-flavored pastilles that were laced with Spanish fly to prostitutes at an orgy in 1772. He was sentenced to death for poisoning and sodomy, but later reprieved on appeal.[13]
  • Bill Cosby joked about trying to obtain some when he was in Spain on his 1969 comedy album It's True! It's True!. [14][15]
  • The compound was mentioned in the 1986 Beastie Boys song, "Brass Monkey", as being mixed in the title drink as an aphrodisiac between the narrator (Ad-Rock, Mike D, MCA) and a girl at a party.[citation needed]

Medical uses[edit]

Medical use dates back to descriptions from Hippocrates. Plasters made from wings of these beetles have been used to raise blisters. Cantharides was used as an abortifacient,[16] a stimulant (since one of its effects was producing insomnia and nervous agitation), and as a poison. Cantharidin is used today as a topical application for treatment of benign epithelial growths including most warts.[17]

Simón Bolívar may have been accidentally poisoned by the application of Spanish fly.[18]


In powder, mixed with food, cantharides could go unnoticed and has thus been employed as a poison: Aqua toffana, or aquetta di Napoli, was one of the poisons associated with the Medicis. Thought to be a mixture of arsenic and cantharides, this was reportedly created by an Italian countess, Toffana. Four to six drops of this poison in water or wine was enough to deliver death in a few hours.[19] Symptoms of cantharidin poisoning including burning of the mouth, dysphagia, nausea, hematemesis, gross hematuria, and dysuria.[3]

To determine if a death had taken place by the effects of Spanish fly, investigators resorted to the vesicación test. One of those test methods consisted of rubbing part of the internal organs of the deceased, dissolved in oil, on the shaved skin of a rabbit; the absorption of the cantharides and its blistering effect are such that they became visible on the skin of the rabbit.

L. vesicatoria

Culinary uses[edit]

Dawamesk, a spread or jam made in North Africa and containing hashish, almond paste, pistachio nuts, sugar, orange or tamarind peel, cloves, and other various spices, occasionally included cantharides.

In Morocco and other parts of North Africa, spice blends known as ras el hanout sometimes included cantharides as an ingredient. However, the sale of cantharides in Moroccan spice markets was banned in the 1990s.[20]

Other uses[edit]

In ancient China, the beetles were mixed with human excrement, arsenic, and wolfsbane to make the world's first recorded stink bomb.[21]

In Santería, cantharides are used in incense.[22]


  1. ^ From Greek lytta, rage and Latin vesica, blister.
  2. ^ Richardg B. Selander (1991). On the Nomenclature and Classification of Meloidae (Coleoptera). Insecta Mundi 5 (2): 65–94.
  3. ^ a b c Karras, David J.; Farrell, SE; Harrigan, RA; Henretig, FM; Gealt, L (1996). "Poisoning from "Spanish fly" (cantharidin)". The American Journal of Emergency Medicine 14 (5): 478–83. doi:10.1016/S0735-6757(96)90158-8. PMID 8765116. While most commonly available preparations of Spanish fly contain cantharidin in negligible amounts, if at all, the chemical is available illicitly in concentrations capable of causing severe toxicity. Symptoms of cantharidin poisoning include burning of the mouth, dysphagia, nausea, hematemesis, gross hematuria, and dysuria. Mucosal erosion and hemorrhage is seen in the upper gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Renal dysfunction is common and related to acute tubular necrosis and glomerular destruction. 
  4. ^ The Merck Veterinary Manual. 2010. Retrieved 22 August 2011. The severity of clinical signs associated with cantharidin toxicosis vary according to dose. Signs may range from mild depression or discomfort to severe pain, shock, and death. 
  5. ^ "Spanish fly." Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia. The Gale Group, Inc, 2005. 22 Nov. 2009.
  6. ^ Expériences sur les cantharides, Robiquet. M., Annales de Chimie, 1810, vol. 76, pp. 302–322.
  7. ^ James, Peter (1995). Ancient Inventions. Ballantine Books. p. 177. ISBN 0-345-40102-6. 
  8. ^ Eplett, Layla (13 March 2012). "When Sparks Fly: Aphrodisiacs and the Fruit Fly". Scientific American. Retrieved 18 November 2014. 
  9. ^ (Milsten 2000, p. 170)
  10. ^ (Cavendish 1968, p. 333)
  11. ^ McDowell, Ema. "Louis XIV and the Spanish Fly". SFP. Retrieved 6 December 2014. The body of the sacrificed baby would be used to drain blood and use it together with the bones to create a mixture for the King. But this wasn’t the only poison she gave to the King. She also spiked his food with Spanish Fly to make the King lust after her even more. She would use just the right amount of the cantharidin to make sure the King was always in fire and when this took place, stayed close by to Louis XIV’s love. Fortunately she was wise enough to keep the dosage low so that the King didn’t see any harm and the only symptom was his increased sex drive. Louis died of other causes and whether or not those long years of unknowingly taking Spanish Fly with his meals had any effect on his genitals is not known. 
  12. ^ de Lignac (1798). A Physical View of Man and Woman in a State of Marriage. Vernor and Hood. the power of cantharides is so great on the bladder and the genital parts of both sexes, that, by taking two or three grains of the powder prepared from them, they experience such ardours that they afterwards become sick. He gives the instance in that case of one of his friends, who partook, on his nuptial night, of a pear-pie in which his rival had put cantharides. Night being arrived, the husband caressed his wife so outrageously, that he in consequence incommoded her 
  13. ^ Ford, Peter; Howell, Michael (1985). The beetle of Aphrodite and other medical mysteries. New York: Random House. ISBN 0-394-54797-7. 
  14. ^ "Bill Cosby 'date rape' routine surfaces". Sydney Morning-Herald. 18 November 2014. Retrieved 18 November 2014. 
  15. ^ Planer, Lindsay. "Bill Cosby: It's True! It's True!" All Music Guide. Retrieved November 24, 2014.
  16. ^ AJ Giannini, HR Black. The Psychiatric, Psychogenic and Somatopsychic Disorders Handbook. Garden City, New York. Medical Examination Publishing Co., 1978. p. 97. ISBN 0-87488-596-5.
  17. ^ Moen, L.; Shwayder, T., Chang M. (October 2001). "Cantharidin revisited: a blistering defense of an ancient medicine". Archives of Dermatology (137): 1357–1360. 
  18. ^ Ledermann W. (Oct 2007) Simón Bolívar y las cantáridas, Rev. chil. infectol. v.24 n.5 Santiago
  19. ^ (Stevens 1990, p. 6)
  20. ^ (Davidson 1999)
  21. ^ (Theroux 1989, p. 54)
  22. ^ (Gonzalez-Wippler 2002, p. 221)
  • Booth, Martin (2004). Cannabis: A History. Picador. ISBN 0-312-42494-9. 
  • Cavendish, Richard (1968). The Black Arts: An Absorbing Account of Witchcraft, Demonology, Astrology, and Other Mystical Practices Throughout the Ages. Perigee Trade. ISBN 0-399-50035-9. 
  • Davidson, Alan (1999). The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-211579-0. 
  • Gonzalez-Wippler, Migene (2002). Santería: The Religion. Llewellyn Publications. ISBN 1-56718-329-8. 
  • Milsten, Richard (2000). The Sexual Male: Problems and Solutions. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-32127-4. 
  • Reichl, Ruth, ed. (2004). The Gourmet Cookbook. Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-618-37408-6. 
  • Stevens, Serita Deborah (1990). Deadly Doses: A Writer's Guide to Poisons. Writer's Digest Books. ISBN 0-89879-371-8. 
  • Theroux, Paul (1989). Riding the Iron Rooster. Ivy Books. ISBN 0-8041-0454-9. 


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