The Spanish fly no doubt has an unpleasant smell, but that’s not what it is known for. Its alleged aphrodisiac properties easily outweigh the fact that it smells bad.
Have you ever come across an emerald green-colored beetle with an unpleasant smell? Well, it’s the Spanish fly―a beetle belonging to the Lytta genus of the Meloidae family. It is roughly about 15 to 22 mm long and 5 to 8 mm wide. Its geographical range spans southern Europe, central Asia, and Siberia. In its native habitat, the Spanish fly inhabits scrublands and woods, and feeds on ash, lilac, Amur privet, and white willow leaves. Its larvae, on the other hand, is a parasite of ground-nesting bees.
Facts about Spanish Flies
Spanish flies have been known to humans since several centuries, and were also described by the renowned ancient Greek physician, Hippocrates. If these beetles are so popular today, it’s largely because of cantharidin―a chemical compound they secrete―and its numerous uses.
What is Cantharidin?
When threatened, these beetles secrete an odorless and crystalline substance known as the cantharidin, which acts as an irritant for animal tissues, thus causing reddening and skin rash. (These insects are also called cantharides at times.) The chemical compound is not just harmful for animals, but is also harmful for humans. In high doses, it can cause excessive salivation, inflammation of stomach, kidneys, urogenital system, headaches, vomiting, and even bloody diarrhea. Though the cases are rare, the chances of the person developing seizures and dying cannot be ruled out. A dose of about 0.03g of cantharidin is known to be lethal for humans.
In spite of the presence of a life-threatening chemical compound, Spanish flies are used in various fields, including medicine. Today, cantharidin is used as a topical application for the treatment of benign epithelial growths, including warts. In the past, they were also used as an abortifacient and poison. One of the poisons that was thought to be used by the Medici was aqua toffana or aquetta di Napoli. It was a mixture of arsenic and cantharides with 4 to 6 drops of poison, which was to be added to wine or water to cause slow death.
Additionally, cantharidin is also known for its alleged aphrodisiac properties. These cantharides are secreted in urine that causes genital inflammation and may lead to priapism. Thus, this property is tapped commercially to help men maintain longer erections. However, the amount to be consumed is very miniscule, and larger doses may lead to bloody discharge, painful urination, permanent damage to kidneys and genitals. (It was not just used for humans, but was also given to farm animals to incite the feelings of mating.)
It is said that the scheming wife of Augustus Caesar, Livia slipped cantharides into the food of guests, so that she could blackmail them. In yet another incident, they were slipped into the food for Louis XIV to make him lust for Madame de Montespan.
It just gets bizarre: Cantharides beetles were mixed with human excrement, arsenic, and wolf’s bane by ancient Chinese to make a stink bomb!
You will find many websites selling cantharide products as sex stimulants. However, it is illegal in United States. Cantharides are only used by licensed physicians for the treatment of topical warts and in animal husbandry. These blistering beetles can lead to many health problems if one is not careful, and therefore it is wise to refrain from advertisements stating that Spanish flies are useful for increasing sex drive. You should consult a qualified physician before taking any powder or capsule made of cantharides.