Love Potions: Spanish Fly or Poisonous Beetle?
Are you sitting dreamily with a vision of a potential lover in your life? Ignite the romance with flowers, chocolate, poetry, or perhaps, a love potion. It’s said a love potion will cause the object of your affection to fall in love with you, perhaps even promise everlasting love. Historically, some potions contained reptilian body parts, mashed worms, and different kinds of flowers. The ancient Greeks believed the Satyrion orchid was the key, while other native cultures explored the hallucinogenic properties of the Datura plant. But what about the notorious aphrodisiac Spanish fly? Was it the promised love potion, or poison?
The Spanish fly is neither a fly nor from Spain, but rather the emerald blister beetle, Lytta vesicatoria, which hails from Eurasia. These metallic-winged beetles feed on ash, lilac, honeysuckle, and other shrubs and trees and range in length from 3 to 20 mm (0.1 to 0.8 inches). The male L. vesicatoria is the source of a toxic agent called cantharidin.
Cantharidin is a powerful irritant that causes blistering and a burning sensation in the body, including the urinary tract. In men, this can cause a long-lasting erection (even priapism which can damage the penis if untreated). However, because of this effect, it gained a reputation as an aphrodisiac. Originally used by the ancient Romans, it reportedly was exploited for extortion by Augustus Caesar’s wife Livia—ground-up beetle added to food provoked men to engage in certain improprieties for which they could be blackmailed. Louis XIV supposedly used it for his indiscretions, as did the Marquis de Sade, who fed prostitutes Spanish fly. Some women died, and he was accused of poisoning, so he fled the country.
Cantharidin was isolated in 1810 by the French chemist Pierre Robiquet. The toxin causes a loss of cellular connections allowing tissues to fall apart and, following oral ingestion, causes ulceration of the gastrointestinal and genitourinary tracts along with electrolyte disturbances. GI bleeding and kidney necrosis can lead to death. However, cantharidin has been used as a treatment for cutaneous warts because it breaks down the outer layers of skin.
The male blister beetle synthesizes cantharidin in its alimentary canal and gifts the toxin to the female during mating, which she uses to protect her eggs. Predators quickly learn to avoid the eggs after one bite. In this setting, cantharidin is the perfect love potion.
The burning sensation felt consuming the Spanish fly was not a result of inflamed love, or burning desire, but rather the destruction of millions of cells. Hardly a love potion. Knowing what’s in the Spanish fly marketed over the internet is challenging. Is it harmless, or does it contain toxic cantharidin or other toxic chemicals? It’s best to avoid these altogether and stick with safer alternatives like chocolate and flowers.