Spanish Fly

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Spanish Fly and Cantharidin
The Spanish fly is the emerald-green blister beetle, in Latin Cantharis vesicatoria or Lytta vesicatoria which is found in the southern parts of Europe. The body is usually 15-22 mm long and 5-8 mm wide with a strong smell and a burning taste. The dried and crushed body of the beetle was earlier used medically as a irritant and diuretic, but was also regarded as a potent aphrodisiac, especially for elderly gentlemen.
The earliest descriptions of its use as a medicine dates back to antiquity. The drug is mentioned by, e.g. Hippocrates, Celsus and Pliny. The Roman empress Livia (58 B.C. – A.D. 29) purportedly slipped it into the food of other members of the imperial family to stimulate them into committing sexual indiscretions that could later be used against them. (Livia was originally the wife of Tiberius Claudius Nero but was given by him to Octavianus, later known as Emperor Augustus, as a part of a reconciliation agreement.)

During the medieval age, however, Spanish fly was almost forgotten.

Even today, the legend of Spanish fly as a powerful aphrodisiac persists. Urban folklore sometimes gives it a prominent role.

The latin name of the beetle derives from the Greek word lytta, meaning rage, and the Latin word vesica, meaning blister. This points to the main effects of poisonous doses: internally mental illness and externally a vesicant action.

The beetle, which thrives on plants of the families Oleaceae and Caprifoliaceae, contains 0.5-1 % of the active ingredient cantharidin. This chemical is sparingly soluble in water and most polar organic solvents but dissolves in oils.

It must be handled with extreme care. It is highly toxic by ingestion, but can also be taken up through skin and mucous membranes. The poisoning is called cantharidism and can consist of severe gastrointestinal disturbances and nephritis. Collapse occurs in severe cases and death might follow. For references, please consult the literature list.
A consumption of 1.6 grammes of pulverised beetles led to death after 26 hours. Ten milligrammes of pure cantharidin resulted in a fatality, whereas a poisoning by 1.3 milligrammes did not.

Cantharidin is excreted by the kidney and will, during excretion, irritate the entire urinary tract. The irritation of the urethra will increase the blood flow to this region and might result in priapism. It is likely that the priapism is the origin of the use of Spanish fly as an aphrodisiac.

In 1772 the infamous Marquis de Sade doctored some aniseed sweets with Spanish fly and offered this to some prostitutes who took part in a flogging orgy. However, there was no aphrodisiac effect but, instead, the girls became very ill, so ill that the Marquis was brought to trial for poisoning.

A more sensible use for catharidin is for the removal of digital warts. For this purpose a 0.7 % solution in equal parts of acetone and collodion can be applied

African Variety
In Zimbabwe, traditional healers sell “vuka-vuka” (“vuka” means “wake up!”), which consists of dried beetles of the genus Myalabris. As in the blister beetle, the active component is cantharidin. The strongest variety offered in Harare’s Mbare market is called “Squirrel’s jump”, possibly because squirrels are believed to be very romantic animals.

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