World Library  
Flag as Inappropriate
Email this Article

Spanish fly

Article Id: WHEBN0000164642
Reproduction Date:

Title: Spanish fly  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: It's True! It's True!, History of abortion, Lyttini, Spanish fly (disambiguation), Insect products
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Spanish fly

Spanish fly
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Coleoptera
Family: Meloidae
Subfamily: Meloinae
Tribe: Lyttini
Genus: Lytta
Species: L. vesicatoria
Binomial name
Lytta vesicatoria
(Linnaeus, 1758)

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 blister-inducing substance obtained from many blister beetles, and the molecule itself is 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]


  • Beetle 1
  • Cantharidin 2
    • Sexual desire 2.1
    • Medical uses 2.2
    • Poison 2.3
    • Culinary uses 2.4
    • Other uses 2.5
  • References 3


L. vesicatoria is 15 to 45 mm (0.59 to 1.77 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]


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

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 [13]
  • Bill Cosby joked about I Spy co-star Robert Culp and him trying to obtain some when he was in Spain. The punchline of the joke was that the Spanish cab driver asked them for some "American Fly," thereby emphasizing that Spanish fly was a universal male fantasy. This was from a 2-minute and 55 second routine 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.

Medical uses

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

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

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. ^
  3. ^ a b c
  4. ^
  5. ^ "Spanish fly." Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia. The Gale Group, Inc, 2005. 22 Nov. 2009.
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^ (Milsten 2000, p. 170)
  10. ^ (Cavendish 1968, p. 333)
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^ Planer, Lindsay. "It's True! It's True!"Bill Cosby: 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. ^
  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)
This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from Project Gutenberg are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.