Spanish fly

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Spanish fly
Scientific classification Edit this classification
Domain: Eukaryota
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Coleoptera
Infraorder: Cucujiformia
Family: Meloidae
Genus: Lytta
L. vesicatoria
Binomial name
Lytta vesicatoria

The Spanish fly (Lytta vesicatoria) is an aposematic emerald-green beetle in the blister beetle family (Meloidae). It is distributed across Eurasia.

The species and others in its family were used in traditional apothecary preparations as "Cantharides".[1] The insect is the source of the terpenoid cantharidin, a toxic blistering agent once used as an exfoliating agent, anti-rheumatic drug and an aphrodisiac.[1] The substance has also found culinary use in some blends of the North African spice mix ras el hanout. Its various supposed benefits have been responsible for accidental poisonings.

Etymology and taxonomy[edit]

The generic name is from the Greek λύττα (lytta), meaning martial rage, raging madness, Bacchic frenzy, or rabies.[2][3] The specific name is derived from Latin vesica, blister.[4]

Lytta vesicatoria was formerly named Cantharis vesicatoria,[5] although the genus Cantharis is in an unrelated family, Cantharidae, the soldier beetles.[6] It was classified there erroneously until the Danish zoologist Johan Christian Fabricius corrected its name in his Systema entomologiae in 1775. He reclassified the Spanish fly as the type species of the new genus Lytta, in the family Meloidae.[7]

Description and ecology[edit]

An aggregation of Spanish fly adults in Siberia. The behaviour and their toxicity suggest that their conspicuous coloration is aposematic.[8]

The adult Spanish fly is a slender, soft-bodied metallic and iridescent golden-green insect, one of the blister beetles. It is approximately 5 mm (0.2 in) wide by 20 mm (0.8 in) long.[9]

The female lays her fertilised eggs on the ground, near the nest of a ground-nesting solitary bee. The larvae are very active as soon as they hatch. They climb a flowering plant and await the arrival of a solitary bee. They hook themselves on to the bee using the three claws on their legs that give the first instar larvae their name, triungulins (from Latin tri, three, and ungulus, claw). The bee carries the larvae back to its nest, where they feed on bee larvae and the bees' food supplies. The larvae are thus somewhere between predators and parasites. The active larvae moult into very different, more typically scarabaeoid larvae for the remaining two or more instars, in a development type called hypermetamorphosis. The adults emerge from the bees' nest and fly to the woody plants on which they feed.[9][10]

The defensive chemical cantharidin, for which the beetle is known, is synthesised only by males; females obtain it from males during mating, as the spermatophore contains some. This may be a nuptial gift, increasing the value of mating to the female, and thus increasing the male's reproductive fitness.[11] Zoologists note that the conspicuous coloration, the presence of a powerful toxin, and the adults' aggregating behaviour in full view of any predators strongly suggest aposematism among the blistering meloid beetles.[8]

Range and habitat[edit]

The Spanish fly is found across Eurasia, though it is a mainly a southern European species,[12][9][13] with some records from southern Great Britain[14] and Poland.[15]

Adult beetles primarily feed on leaves of ash, lilac, amur privet, honeysuckle and white willow. It is occasionally found on plum, rose, and elm.[9][16]

Interaction with humans[edit]

Collecting Cantharides, 19th century

Preparation of cantharidin[edit]


Cantharidin, the principal active component in preparations of Spanish fly, was first isolated and named in 1810 by the French chemist Pierre Robiquet, who demonstrated that it was the principal agent responsible for the aggressively blistering properties of this insect's egg coating. It was asserted at that time that it was as toxic as the most violent poisons then known, such as strychnine.[17]

Each beetle contains some 0.2–0.7 mg of cantharidin, males having significantly more than females. The beetle secretes the agent orally, and exudes it from its joints as a milky fluid. The potency of the insect as a blistering agent has been known since antiquity and the activity has been used in various ways. This has led to its small-scale commercial preparation and sale, in a powdered form known as cantharides (from the plural of Greek κανθαρίς, Kantharis, beetle), obtained from dried and ground beetles. The crushed powder is of yellow-brown to brown-olive color with iridescent reflections, is of disagreeable scent, and is bitter to taste. Cantharidin, the active agent, is a terpenoid, and is produced by some other insects, such as Epicauta immaculata.[5][18][19][20][21]

Toxicity and poisonings[edit]

Cantharidin is dangerously toxic, inhibiting the enzyme phosphatase 2A. It causes irritation, blistering, bleeding and discomfort. These effects can escalate to erosion and bleeding of mucosa in each system, sometimes followed by severe gastro-intestinal bleeding and acute tubular necrosis and glomerular destruction, resulting in gastro-intestinal and renal dysfunction, organ failure, and death.[18][22][23][24][25]

Preparations of Spanish fly and its active agent have been implicated in both inadvertent[18] and intentional poisonings.[18] Arthur Kendrick Ford was imprisoned in 1954 for the unintended deaths of two women surreptitiously given candies laced with cantharidin, which he had intended to act as an aphrodisiac.[18] It has been suggested that George Washington was treated with Spanish fly for epiglottitis, the condition which caused his death.[26]

Currently the cantharidin in US, in the form of collodion, is used in the treatment of warts and molluscum.[1]

Culinary uses[edit]

In Morocco and other parts of North Africa, spice blends known as ras el hanout sometimes included as a minor ingredient "green metallic beetles", inferred to be L. vesicatoria, although its sale in Moroccan spice markets was banned in the 1990s.[27] 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.[28]

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.[29]

In ancient Greece and Rome, Spanish fly was used to attempt to treat skin diseases, while in medieval Persia, Islamic medicine applied Spanish fly, named ḏarārīḥ (ذراریـح), to attempt to prevent rabies.[30]

In the 19th century, Spanish fly was used externally mainly as blistering agent and local irritant; also, in chronic gonorrhoea, paralysis, lepra, ulcers therapy.[1] L. vesicatoria was used internally as a diuretic stimulant and aphrodisiac.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e Smakosz, Aleksander Karol (31 January 2022). "Bug as a Drug. Lytta vesicatoria L. Applications in Nineteenth Century Official Medicine". Pharmacognosy Reviews. 16 (31): 27–33. doi:10.5530/phrev.2022.16.5. S2CID 246541585.
  2. ^ Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert (1940). "λύττα, λυττάω, λυττητικός, etc., v. λυσς-". Liddell & Scott. Retrieved 14 February 2017.
  3. ^ Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert (1940). "λύσσα". Liddell & Scott. Retrieved 14 February 2017.
  4. ^ "Latin definition for: vesica, vesicae". Latin Dictionary & Grammar Resources. Retrieved 19 January 2022.
  5. ^ a b Anon (2012) [2009]. "Cantharide". Farlex Partner Medical Dictionary. Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania: Farlex. Retrieved 14 December 2015.
  6. ^ Selander, Richardg B. (1991). "On the Nomenclature and Classification of Meloidae (Coleoptera)". Insecta Mundi. 5 (2): 65–94.
  7. ^ Selander, R. B. (1991). "On the nomenclature and classification of Meloidae (Coleoptera)]". Insecta Mundi. 5 (2): 65–94.
  8. ^ a b Young, Daniel K. (1984). "Cantharidin and insects: an historical review". The Great Lakes Entomologist. 17 (4): 187–194.
  9. ^ a b c d Schlager, Neil, ed. (2004). "Coleoptera (beetles and weevils)". Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia. Vol. 3, Insects (2nd ed.). Farmington Hills, Michigan: Thomson-Gale/American Zoo and Aquarium Association. p. 331. ISBN 978-0787657796. Retrieved 20 December 2015.
  10. ^ "Illustrated lecture notes on Tropical Medicine - Ectoparasites - Beetles" (PDF). Institute of Tropical Medicine Antwerp. Retrieved 14 February 2017.
  11. ^ Boggs, Carol L. (1995). Leather, S. R.; Hardie, J. (eds.). Male Nuptial Gifts: Phenotypic Consequences and Evolutionary Implications. CRC Press. pp. 215–242.
  12. ^ Cutler, Horace G. (1992). "An Historical Perspective of Ancient Poisons". In Nigg, Herbert N.; Seigler, David S. (eds.). Phytochemical Resources for Medicine and Agriculture. p. 3. doi:10.1007/978-1-4899-2584-8_1. ISBN 978-1-4899-2586-2.
  13. ^ Guala, Gerald, ed. (2015). "Geographic Information: Geographic Division". Lytta vesicatoria (Linnaeus, 1758), Taxonomic Serial No.: 114404. Reston, Virginia: United States Geological Survey, Integrated Taxonomic Information System. Retrieved 20 December 2015.
  14. ^ "Lytta vesicatoria (Linnaeus, 1758)". UK Beetle Recording. UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. Retrieved 12 January 2018.
  15. ^ "Lytta (Lytta) vesicatoria vesicatoria Linnaeus, 1758". Polish Biodiversity Information Network (Krajowa Sieć Informacji o Bioróżnorodności). Retrieved 12 January 2017.
  16. ^ Neligan, J. M.; Macnamara, R. (1867). Medicines, their uses and mode of administration; including a complete conspectus of the three British Pharmacopoeias, an account of all the new remedies, and an Appendix of Formulae. Fanin & Company. p. 297.
  17. ^ Robiquet, M. (1810). "Expériences sur les cantharides". Annales de Chimie. 76: 302–322.
  18. ^ a b c d e Froberg, Blake A. (2010). "Animals". In Holstege, Christopher P.; Neer, Thomas; Saathoff, Gregory B.; Furbee, R. Brent (eds.). Criminal Poisoning: Clinical and Forensic Perspectives. Burlington, Massachusetts: Jones & Bartlett. pp. 39–48, esp. 41, 43, 45ff. ISBN 978-1449617578. Retrieved 16 December 2015. Note: the active agent appears variously as cantharidin,: 41  and "cantharadin": 43, 45ff  or "canthariadin": 238  (sic).
  19. ^ Aggrawal, Anil, ed. (2007). "VII. Spanish Fly (Cantharides)". APC Textbook of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology. New Delhi, India: Avichal. p. 652f. ISBN 978-8177394191. Retrieved 14 December 2015.
  20. ^ Blood, Douglas Charles; Studdert, Virginia P.; Gay, Clive C., eds. (2007). "Cantharides". Saunders Comprehensive Veterinary Dictionary (3rd ed.). Philadelphia, PA, USA: Elsevier. ISBN 978-0702027888. Retrieved 14 December 2015.
  21. ^ Jonas, Wayne B., ed. (2005). "Cantharides". Mosby's Dictionary of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (3rd ed.). Philadelphia, PA, USA: Elsevier Saunders. ISBN 978-0323025164. Retrieved 14 December 2015.
  22. ^ Evans, T. J.; Hooser, S. B. (2010). "Comparative Gastrointestinal Toxicity (Ch. 16)". In Hooser, Stephen; McQueen, Charlene (eds.). Comprehensive Toxicology (2nd ed.). London, England: Elsevier Academic Press. pp. 195–206. ISBN 978-0080468846.
  23. ^ Gwaltney-Brant, Sharon M.; Dunayer, Eric; Youssef, Hany (2012). "Terrestrial Zootoxins [Coleoptera: Meloidae (Blister Beetles)". In Gupta, Ramesh C. (ed.). Veterinary Toxicology: Basic and Clinical Principles (2nd ed.). London, England: Elsevier Academic Press. pp. 975–978. ISBN 978-0123859266. Retrieved 14 December 2015.
  24. ^ Karras, David J.; Farrell, S. E.; Harrigan, R. A.; et al. (1996). "Poisoning From "Spanish Fly" (Cantharidin)". The American Journal of Emergency Medicine. 14 (5): 478–483. 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.
  25. ^ Wilson, C. R. (2010). "Methods for Analysis of Gastrointestinal Toxicants (Ch. 9)". In Hooser, Stephen; McQueen, Charlene (eds.). Comprehensive Toxicology (2nd ed.). London, England: Elsevier Academic Press. pp. 145–152, esp. 150. ISBN 978-0080468846. Retrieved 14 December 2015.
  26. ^ Henriques, Peter R. (2000). The Death of George Washington: He Died as He Lived. Mount Vernon, Virginia: Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. pp. 27–36. ISBN 978-0-931917-35-6.
  27. ^ Davidson, Alan (1999). Jaine, Tom (ed.). The Oxford Companion to Food. Vannithone, Soun (illustrator). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. p. 671ff. ISBN 978-0-19-211579-9. Retrieved 13 December 2015.
  28. ^ Green, Jonathon (12 October 2002). "Spoonfuls of paradise". The Guardian. Retrieved 14 February 2017.
  29. ^ Theroux, Paul (1989). Riding the Iron Rooster. Ivy Books. p. 54. ISBN 978-0-8041-0454-8.
  30. ^ Moallemi, Mostafa; Yousofpour, Mohammad; Jokar, Assie (2021). "Prevention of Rabies by Application of Lytta vesicatoria in Persian Medicine Texts in Islamic Civilization". Traditional and Integrative Medicine. 6 (1): 70–77.

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